Nixon in China is still sometimes discussed as a CNN opera, a musical version of events as they transition from headline to history. The opera tells the story of that old "cold warrior" President Richard Nixon's 1972 groundbreaking visit to China to meet Chairman Mao Tse-tung and establish diplomatic relations.
But really this work, with music by Berkeley's John Adams and a libretto by Alice Goodman, is an odd satire, told as a series of increasingly surreal daydreams.
How could it not be when Air Force One appears out of the clouds as the overture begins, looking a lot like a giant panda with its black shiny nose? And Mao's aria, when he meets Nixon, is no small talk or political duet; it's a dense weave of opaque metaphor and riddle. "Founders come first," he sings, "then profiteers."
I saw Nixon in China's first production in San Francisco, a workshop at the Herbst Theatre in 1987 with John Adams at the keyboard. Based on that performance, I could hardly guess at the rich music Adams had written, a tapestry of orchestral color and melody layered on a base of rhythmic minimalism. The San Francisco Opera is presenting the city's first fully staged production -- and it's a great one.
Michael Cavanagh directs this Vancouver Opera production with a nice touch, balancing the historical drama with all the humor and strangeness of Goodman's libretto. Conductor Lawrence Renes seemed well in charge of Adams' rhythmically complex music.
Baritone Brian Mulligan gets Nixon's stacatto speech and stiff mannerisms right, without the smarm. He brings a sincere enthusiasm to "News has a kind of mystery," his first aria. Simon O'Neill is a suitably opaque and forceful Mao.
The leading ladies make the most vivid impressions. Merola Opera Program Graduate Hye Jung Lee is sensational as Madame Mao, Chiang Ch'ing. Soprano Lee is a tiny woman, but she fills her role with an air of menace. "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung," she sings, "who raised the weak above the strong." And later, while standing on a pile of bloody bodies, she sings, "The worms are hungry."
Maria Kanyova gives Pat Nixon both the polish of a first lady as gracious VIP tourist and a mid-century American housewife supporting her husband while trying to figure out what the heck is going on.
I'm not the first to wonder why Henry Kissinger is the one character treated as a cartoon villain. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi doesn't make it work any better than others have before him.
The third and final act is a puzzle, as these world leaders wander the stage lost in remorse, pondering their personal histories and the meaning of this new relationship. Chou En-lai, as played by baritone Chen Ye-Yuan, is the conscience of the story. He clasps his hands and asks "How much of what we did was good?" Does he mean the Chinese Revolution, the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, or the detente with the U.S.? If he means this opera, the answer is: it's very good.
There are four more performance of Nixon in China through July 3, 2012 at San Francisco Opera. For tickets and information visit sfopera.com.
All photos by Cory Weaver.