Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Eagle Has Landed

June 23, 2012

Chen-Ye Yuan, Maria Kanyova, and Brian Mulligan Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2012
It took 25 years, but John Adams’ Nixon in China finally made it to the stage of San Francisco Opera this month. It’s an unusual oversight considering that Adams, a composer with deep roots in Northern California, has had other major premieres here already with The Death of Klinghoffer (which SFO helped commission and originally staged in 1992 after runs in Belgium and New York) and Doctor Atomic in 2005. But Nixon in China, Adams’ most known and revered work, had to wait until SFO General Director David Gockley, who commissioned the work originally for Houston Grand Opera in 1987, decided to bring the opera here. Gockley has perhaps the greatest track record for commissioning new operas, often from young, first-time, American composers both in Houston and San Francisco. That’s noble and important work, though frequently fraught with failure. But Gockley’s risk on a young, untested creative team including Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, and director Peter Sellars, will likely make Nixon in China his greatest legacy to the world of opera after all is said and done.

On Friday night, I saw the fourth of seven scheduled performances of Nixon in China and would agree with many others that Gockley and his company have brought a near perfect production of this landmark of musical theater to the stage. The 2010 production is from Vancouver Opera and was designed and directed by Michael Cavanagh. It’s the kind of opera whose time and setting strongly dictate the physical look of the show, but Cavanagh and production designer Sean Nieuwenhuis have created something absolutely thrilling to watch despite the inevitable giant portraits of Mao, red furniture, and giant Boeing VC-137C. Like so many opera productions these days, there is copious use of video projections. But unlike most, the video, designed by Nieuwenhuis is spectacularly done, functioning as much more than scenery. At times the images reflect unseen action going on in other parts of the scene. At other times they contain images of the characters themselves as if projecting their own internal thoughts while the story unfolds. The images arrive in unexpected places and don’t just fill a backdrop that here is often comprised of swirling interlaced Chinese and U.S. flags. Note to Robert Lepage - this is how video on stage is done.

But I digress. All this video would mean nothing if it weren’t for another young gun of new(ish) operas, conductor Lawrence Renes. He did himself and San Francisco proud with Adams’ most doctrinaire minimalist score. (Yes, I’m making that last bit up.) The orchestra and vocalists are tightly controlled and in sync throughout despite the score’s frequent repetitive elements. The vocalists are all excellent. Who wouldn’t be in love with Brian Mulligan after his performance as an ebullient almost child-like Nixon. He’ fully engaged and is well paired both with the Mao Tse-Tung of Simon O’Neill and Patrick Carfizzi’s Henry Kissinger. Carfizzi has some of the most brutal stuff in this opera especially in the Act II ballet sequence where Pat Nixon imagines he has become part of the ballet being performed, taking over the role of the cruel, sadistic overlord. Maria Kanyova gets some of the best arias in the whole opera as Pat Nixon, and she made all of these highlights special. When Hye Jung Lee’s Madame Mao shoots Kissinger in the head in this feverish dream sequence, there were at least two shouts of support and applause from this mostly silent and mostly liberal audience. Ms. Lee, of course, get the big Act II closer, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung” and she milks it without any strain or uncertainty. A spot-on performance. But as usual, I was most taken with the character of Chou En-Lai, the Chinese Premiere who was played here by baritone Chen-Ye Yuan. Yuan’s phrasing was superb for Goodman’s gorgeous, poetic libretto.

There were issues that kept the show from being 100 percent on the mark, though. The nasty business of amplifying the singers was one. I’m not opposed to such amplification generally, but I do think that if one is going to do it, the amplification should actually help the balance of sound and not make it worse. The chorus was strangely inaudible for the first thirty minutes and by mid-point the soloists were a bit too loud in contrast to the orchestra. Cavanagh’s directorial choices weren’t always on target either. One of the best parts of Nixon in China is the way Goodman’s lovely libretto slowly pushes the described events into a world of dream-like surrealism. People start to lose it, but they don’t start out that way. Cavanagh, however, couldn’t resist a fair amount of jokiness in the first act, however, with Nixon deplaning with almost cartoonish energy and mannerisms. The table spinning drunken brawl at the end of Act I plays many of the opera’s cards way too early, killing the slowly developing tone of the piece. Still, successes of this size have been rare at SFO this season and the long awaited arrival of Nixon in China is not to be sniffed at. It’s a show worth seeing more than once and it runs through July 3.



Glad you got to see "Nixon" on Friday. It's been getting better with each performance, which is not always necessarily the case. I can't tell you how much fun it has been running around rehearsal and opera house stages to this music for the last two months as a supernumerary soldier and waiter. I may have finally figured out the essence of "interactive entertainment."
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