Nixon in China at the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto. Seen on February 5, 2011. Full Cast & Creative here.
We are greeted by the terracotta warriors first, about a meter high and lined in an orderly fashion like the figures in chess. The stage stays awash in the light wallpaper of red while one by one the tai chi practitioners all wearing the same grey Maoist uniform come out and begin moving in relative unison. The only person standing out is the elderly Chinese who will later ramble in and out of various scenes and observe the proceedings in wonderment. The music starts and the crowd, now obviously a chorus, sings The People Are The Heroes Now (‘The Three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention’). Alice Goodman’s Synopsis specifies that the scene is showing the “contingents of army, navy and air force”. Instead of President Nixon’s plane strolling onto the runway – thank Thalia, no fake Air Force One is rolled onto the stage – the television sets are floated down, each showing a plane descending. The moment the TV planes touch the ground and doors open, Nixon (Robert Orth) and Pat (Maria Kanyova) appear at the top of the high stairs on the left. Welcome to the new and not naturalist production of Nixon in China, Mr. President.
It’s not exactly a new, unseen and unreviewed production: more new-ish (2004) and already seen in other co-prod cities (here’s the list: Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Colorado, Houston Grand Opera, Minnesota Opera and Portland Opera), but the director James Robinson’s production won’t age any time soon. The mainstay of the minimalist set are the TV screens of several sizes and arrangements, a fantastically clever choice by Robinson and the set designer Allen Moyer given the importance the television had for the event itself. Later in the opera when Nixon thinks about the solid stock, middle-American family (what would now be called his demographics) they appear on stage, dinner plates on their laps, in the glow of television light. In the first scene of Act II, while Pat is on the mandatory tour of various communes, factories and points of local pride, the documentary images in the levitating TV sets match exactly what is going on stage, so the stage props have some room for abstraction and play. (Pigs, for example, come onto the stage carried by the peasants as three-dimensional placards.) In the last scene of the opera, as each of the four principals plus Henry Kissinger undress and get ready for bed, it is on top of the large TV sets, permanently on, that they all sit and lie.
What of the music, then? I may not be the most representative audience member in that I can happily take endless hours of anything resembling minimalism, but most people don’t have similar idiosyncrasies of taste. By now our ears have been well-trained for minimalism thanks to the many minimalist composers who work in film – Michael Nyman (The Piano etc.) Yann Thiersen (Amélie), also Philip Glass (The Hours, Notes on a Scandal and The Fog of War among many others), and anybody who’s exposed to minimalism is usually swept away by its exuberance. But what if the piece is three hours long? Three hours of oceanic buildup and exuberance can annihilate all exuberance out of one. Also, part of the listening of minimalism is that our expectations of ending and resolution get rolfed. “How can this ever end without a painful deflation and tumble to the ground? Nah, we’re going to be on this wave forever.” In Nixon in China there are many changes of colour and passages connecting the different bouts –what in a more traditional operatic language could be called the set pieces – and how well they’re executed depends on the conductor. At the opening night, Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado marshaled his pit army valiantly, and the orchestra maintained consistent sound and high energy.
The cast had no weak links. Baritone Robert Orth sang his (by now, signature) role with aplomb and twinkle in the eye, steering clear from any hint of caricature. The role of Pat Nixon may even be trickier than Dick’s because it requires restraint and deglamourizing of the singer, both dramatic and vocal, and Maria Kanyova’s Pat, fluttering and never quite sure if she’s allowed to have an opinion yet always obliged to speak, was tone perfect. The opera shows the Nixons as a genuinely close and caring couple – Mao and Mrs Mao get a similar break — which is in contrast to the Oliver Stone & Anthony Hopkins possibly hatchet-y portrait of Nixon as a domestic abuser. The character of Kissinger is masterfully delegated to the sidelines, in contradiction to the myth which Kissinger himself and many Nixon-era scholars and pundits perpetuated, that Kissinger ran the place while Nixon was President. He is also given a touch of caricature, the (probably again self-produced) myth of his womanizing is taken for a walk and mocked, and his sinister side aired in the funniest way possible during the Red Detachment of Women ballet. Bass-baritone Thomas Hammons sung Kissinger in the original Sellars production and here relives the hilarious standard. Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan (Chu-En Lai) was rock-solid throughout: whatever the scene, you could count on his secure voice and discreet melancholy to anchor it. The only tenor in the cast is the old Mao, sung by Adrian Thomson, who managed to give his often mystifying lines and behaviour what they needed the most: believability. He even earns some sympathy in the final scene with Mrs. Mao, this time the frisky young coloratura thing, maybe a nod to her days as a starlet which Mao reminisces on, sung by Marisol Montalvo.
The scene in which he is introduced, however, was difficult to follow. The words he is saying and the non-exchange that Nixon and he (enforced by the echoing entourage) have it’s probably meant to show the dissonance and talking at cross-purpose, but there was something off that night either in the execution or the libretto itself that almost forced me to tune out. For some reason, possibly of unbalanced sound engineering in this amplified opera, Robert Orth’s singing started at too low a volume and kept being overwhelmed by the orchestra decibels (I was in the mid-parterre). When the first Mao-Nixon scene came on, everything appeared to go out of joint: the timing of the exchange, the sound levels among the singers, the orchestral veil became almost jarring. No idea where to put the blame, but let’s try with Alice Goodman.
Namely, I am not sure I want my librettos written by poets. Alice Goodman’s research for the libretto was very thorough, and her poetic gift is undeniable (according to John Adams’s bio, she is now an Anglican priest in England). But words of poetry require slow consummation and full attention, which the opera libretto must divide with and sometimes surrender to other elements: the music and the action on stage. Perhaps this scene would have been more manageable if the words didn’t require our monopoly of attention? There was simply no time to contemplate the polysemic layers of Mao’s words while that scene was taking place.
But that and the odd moment of illogical sound engineering are my only reservations. Overall, this is one rocking production with the most rocking score.