La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 17 February 2011

A memorable Nixon in China at the COC

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

As far as operas go, John Adams’ Nixon in China is undoubtedly grand. It runs for about three hours. And judging by the Canadian Opera Company premiere of the work first debuted in Houston Grand Opera in 1987, Nixon is here to stay.

The Feb. 11 performance at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts was an memorable one, whether or not you would consider paying money to watch it again in the future by the end of it.

Directed by James Robinson, the set is essentially bare as to match Adams’ minimalistic score, which is heavily influenced by composers like Philip Glass. Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, was 40 years old when he completed the opera that recounts president Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China. The music of Nixon is high in energy and all-out American with Glenn Miller-esque saxophones. The COC orchestra was one hot band from beginning to end.

Robinson’s Nixon opened casually and gradually — as in prior to the show time while people were still finding their seats and chatting to each other and the house lights were on — with a group of soldiers dressed in military uniform silently practising tai-chi on stage. Once the lights were dimmed and Spanish guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado was in place in the pit, the “overture” began seamlessly and the soldiers went into a Red Army song.

American baritone Robert Orth was an uncanny Nixon from the moment he stepped off the plane — symbolized by an airplane ladder on stage — in an airfield outside Peking. His exaggerated smile and the awkward big-hand wave to the people made him a believable president even before he made a sound. By the time he shook hands with Premier Chou En-Lai and sang his first catchy “News” aria with clear articulation and just the right amount of playfulness, Orth had set a smart tone for the entire opera.

Alice Goodman’s witty libretto was the source of much humour and shock throughout the night. It’s deliciously written, full of subtle ironies. However, when set to Adams’ perpetually repetitive music in ways like “News, news, news, news, news…has a...has a...has a...has a kind of mystery, has a...has a...has a kind of mystery”, images of Colin Firth in The King’s Speech comes up immediately.

So Nixon meets with Chairman Mao, sung in fine form by English tenor Adrian Thompson. And the political and musical differences between the two were smoothed out by baritone Chen-Ye Yuan as Premier Chou En-Lai and bass-baritone Thomas Hammons as Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State. Both Yuan and Hammons were commendable in their respective performances.

Soprano Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon soared throughout the opera and owned the stage in Act 2 when she gets a tour of China. Her counterpart Chiang Ch’ing, Mao’s wife, was played by soprano Marisol Montalvo, whose “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung” aria sounded weak and forced despite her feisty effort.

The play-within-a-play ballet scene was beautifully choreographed by Sean Curran. But it was set designer Allen Moyer’s use of televisions to display real footage of Nixon’s China visit that dominated the stage. This was a bit of a novelty as the TVs (12 at first and six remained) descended slowly on the stage and the audience was able to watch the TVs and be reminded of the historic event and even draw comparison between what happened then and what was happening on stage. Video designer Wendall Harrington’s choice of images and footage focused not on journalistic details but the mood and surroundings of the event. They gave authenticity to the plotless story line and served as a unique and refreshing backdrop for the opera.

Nixon in China continues until Feb. 26.

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