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Nixon in China

Houston Grand Opera

In Review HGO Nixon hdl 417
Hendricks and Chuchman as the Nixons at HGO
© Lynn Lane

THIS YEAR'S Houston Grand Opera presentation of John Adams’s Nixon in China not only recalled the presidential visit of 1972 but commemorated the anniversary of HGO’s world premiere of the work, which took place thirty years ago, in October 1987. For this occasion, HGO introduced James Robinson’s well-traveled Nixon production to Houston. The Robinson staging adeptly captures the main themes of the work—momentous diplomacy as broadcast on television, the vast cultural distance between the United States and China, and the enormous weight of history pressing down on each of the main characters, not only in their public roles but in their private musings. The juxtaposition of events unfolding onstage and their representation on the multiple TVs in Allen Moyer’s set design served the practical purpose of filling in details and adding vistas not shown live. Thus we see the President’s plane taxiing after landing and the first glimpse of the President and First Lady in the doorway to the plane on TV. We also appreciate the historic role of the medium itself and Nixon’s shrewd use of it at this moment of his presidency. Another crucial feature of Moyer’s set is its monumental severity in depicting Chinese communist ceremonial spaces, all appropriately bathed in different shades of intense red in Paul Palazzo’s lighting design. Complementing the juxtaposition of Chinese setting and Western media presence is James Robinson’s directing, which never loses sight of an East–West dichotomy of behaviors between the rigorous discipline and impassiveness of Chinese officialdom (all intensified by the tight ensemble and imposing presence of the HGO Chorus as Chinese military and government personnel) and the demonstrative, even effusive and sometimes awkward manner of the Nixons in their attempt to break the ice with their Chinese hosts.

At the performance on January 30, Scott Hendricks’s Nixon clearly and satisfyingly reflected a close study of the President’s distinctive movements (that clumsy wave) and expressions (that forced smile), and his soaring baritone captured Nixon’s intellectual brilliance dogged by persistent insecurity. Andriana Chuchman, a warm and vibrant soprano, was a Pat Nixon of remarkable depth—one who at first delighted girlishly in her exotic surroundings, then engaged meaningfully with those she meets there, and ultimately empathized so deeply with the tormented victim in a staged play that she burst from the audience to offer comfort. Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan (Chou En-lai) sang with a commanding voice and stage presence, but in addition to public gravitas and visionary conviction, Yuan vividly illustrated the role’s contemplative and even self-questioning private side. Tenor Chad Shelton’s Mao Tse-tung, by contrast, betrayed no such uncertainty of purpose or perspective. If Shelton’s stage movements showed Mao to be enfeebled by age and illness, his solid, penetrating tenor revealed the iron will behind the Chairman’s often terse and cryptic pronouncements. 

The least sympathetic characters in the opera, Henry Kissinger and Chiang Ch’ing (or Madame Mao), have the most colorful moments. In his Kissinger-as-evil-landlord turn in Act II, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi reveled in the character’s snarling greed and lust, but his performance otherwise misfired, with gestures evidently meant to recall Kissinger’s swinger reputation. Audrey Luna, substituting for an ailing Tracy Dahl as Madame Mao, stepped up to give a searing, virtuoso performance of Ch’ing’s “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung.”

With its many, many fast notes and thick orchestration, Adams’s score is a demanding one for orchestras, but the HGO Orchestra played expertly, if often too loudly, under the assured direction of Robert Spano. The performance featured especially prominent and solid playing on percussion (Richard Brown) and keyboard (Patrick Harvey, Geoffrey Loff and Peter Walsh).  —Gregory Barnett

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