The Princeton Festival closed its 2019 season with a second performance of Nixon in China, an opera more specifically relevant to today’s political landscape than Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.*
In the simple but effective staging, Director Steven LaCosse gave us a big show on a small stage. Though cramped somewhat during the crowd scenes, particularly Nixon’s landing, the banquet at the end of the Act I and the elaborate entertainment in Act II, LaCosse kept things moving both on stage and in transition, thanks to a set which could be morphed smoothly into new entrances, new configurations of chairs and risers, etc. The entertainment, a wild ballet and the crowd’s reactions in Act II were quite affecting; the reflective mood of Act III was never shattered by irrelevant business.
Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s projections enhanced the transitions with snippets of newspaper headlines on multiple screens, many documenting President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to China in February of 1972. A quick eye, however, detected as well a projected headline of the current President’s recent visit there on one of the panels on the left. Brief but telling, this is, especially since at the end of Nixon in China the weary characters seem to feel as if not a whole lot of substance had been accomplished by the historic visit.
Then, too, there are numerous images of our war in Vietnam: in the opera Mao Tse-tung observes to Nixon “You want to bring your boys back home,” to which Nixon replies “What if we do? Is that a crime?” Mao then asserts that China doesn’t need to invade other countries because the Chinese people are in all matters self-sufficient. American soldiers, the Green Berets specifically, are in Vietnam to defend a capitalist economy to feed the greed and usury of the American people. Throughout the opera, the images remind us that China, a very Communist country recently cleansed of the burdens of tradition and any wisps of capitalism, had to be, for Nixon, a break from reality, almost a walk on the moon, in context of what was going on back here at home.
Nixon, heroically sung by Sean Anderson,** comes off as, well, an American out of context: he’s positive, genuine, up front, almost childlike, awkward, not really sure of what to say, but fascinated that, regardless, it will be reported in the news all over the world. “When I shook hands with Cho En lai…”
The fatigue of the trip, however, weighs down his exuberance, as much as the fatigue from Adams’ excellent but longer-than-it-has-to-be score weighs down on ours. By Act III, performed without intermission after Act II, the last evening of the visit, Nixon is no longer grandstanding. Rather, he is homesick, seeking the comfort of familiarity. He quietly recalls to Pat his close call with death as a fighter pilot in World War II and what he did to raise the spirits of his comrades.
Pat Nixon is similar to her husband, positive and genuine, though not as manic. She’s more interpersonally sensitive, willing to break protocol by getting down on her knees to interact with the cute children. She tries to be gracious and properly excited by the gift of a little elephant in glass, a fitting gift in that it’s the symbol of the USA’s Republican Party. She asks, “Tell me, is it one of a kind?” The Three Secretaries reply “They [our workers] can make hundreds every day.”
During The Red Detachment of Women, an entertainment/propaganda ballet in Act II, Pat is so emotionally shaken that she breaks decorum to comfort a dancer who, in the plot, appears to be savagely beaten. Soprano Rainelle Krause** delivers all this, as well as Pat’s fundamentally positive, hopeful attitudes toward the future in her two ruminations “I don’t daydream and I don’t look back” and “This is prophetic….” both early in Act II, with a well-grounded soulfulness. But Krause can also let loose a lusty, even heroic soprano voice when the situation arises.
Henry Kissinger, sung by Joseph Barron, is the more philosophically, politically and socially savvy one of the entourage. He, after all, set up the historic trip and he, because of his global wisdom, brings more to the table with that international handshake. Barron’s stance throughout was solid, his dark baritone voice resonant.
In the performance of The Red Detachment of Women we meet the character of Lao Szu, a name remarkably like Lao Tsu, the alleged founder of Taoism, the ancient belief system outlawed by the Cultural Revolution in China. Szu is a brutal landlord who, he tells us, has just finished having his way with one of the female tenants. Wu Ching-hua, a revolutionary leader with the Red Detachment, snatches a whip away from Lao Szu and strikes him, kicks him, etc., but, when the tables turn on her, Lao Szu shouts repeatedly to the guards “Whip her to death! Whip her to death!” Graham Lustig choreographed this effective (but long) ballet; dancers included Eun Kyong Kim, Seyong Kim, Azusa Okamoto, Raymond Pinto, Amy Ruggerio, and Gillian Worek.
But wait: Lao Szu was also sung by Joseph Barron, labeled “Kissinger (as Lao Szu)” in the libretto.*** Hmmm. Pat Nixon even asks “Doesn’t he look like you-know-who?” but we, at least I in the audience wondered: a. why Henry Kissinger would play a character in a Chinese revolutionary ballet and b. play it with such gusto, like, where did that vengeful sadistic streak come from?? I thought Kissinger was a man of peace…The synopsis in the program**** was no help.
Answer: as conceived by librettist Alice Goodman and composer John Adams Lao Szu is indeed a different person, played by a Chinese actor who should, to make a point, look and act like an American landlord (which is why the singer who sings the role of Kissinger should take the part). In this we see the ballet through the eyes of the Chinese Communists: Lao Szu represents the former brutality and oppression of capitalism and tradition…
The emotional center of the Chinese contingent is Premier Chou En-Lai, who, with Mao Tse-tung, did the Long March in 1934-1935 and helped to bring about the Cultural Revolution in 1966-1969. Of the two, Chou is also the more savvy one about the ways of the West, having been to Europe and met with high level world diplomats, etc. John Viscardi maintained Chou’s gravity, his serious bearing and his pride throughout the opera. Compared to the others Chou is far less prone to bravado and bragging, more to reflection. Mao Tse-tung was sung by heldentenor Cameron Schutza, whose voice had endless power and presence throughout Act I.
Of the Chinese women, Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao) is sung with a sweet, high voice by Teresa Castillo. Her big scene at the end of Act II, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung” asserts the meaning of the ballet. The Three Secretaries were often omnipresent but silent, sometimes assertive, always polite. Liz Culpepper was the 1st Secretary, Emily Marvosh was the 2nd, and Edith Dowd was the 3rd.
Praise to the Princeton Festival Chorus, under Gregory Geehern; praise for the Lighting Design by Norman Coates; praise for the Costumes designed by James Schuette; praise to Brittany Rappese for Wigs and Makeup; praise for Stanley Fink, the Répétiteur/Coach. One can only imagine the complexity of getting this production synched and ready for show time.
But above all, praise for Richard Tang Yuk for his expert conducting of John Adams’ complex composition. The coordination of the instrumentalists in the pit and the singers and dancers on stage was without apparent flaw. Bravo!
The performance was amplified, in the program the disclaimer: “The principal singers are miked according to instructions from the composer,” which is fine, but Act I was too much ‘miked’ for the relatively small Matthews Theatre. The amplification of Act II/Act III was less obtrusive.
Photos provided by Princeton Festival.
* But there’s always tomorrow, as close as a tweet away. Who knows?
** OperaMetro interviewed both Sean Anderson and Rainelle Krause. It is posted down below this review and the two more recent posts of the stars of Teatro Nuovo.
*** I used the libretto provided in the Naxos recording of the 2008 Opera Colorado production, conducted by Marin Alsop.
**** The synopsis in the program and in the Naxos libretto is courtesy Hendon Music Inc., copyright 1987.
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