Thirty years after its Houston Grand Opera world premiere, John Adams' Nixon in China (1987) still retains a strikingly original power to amaze and beguile. It also retains its power to stupefy and bemuse.
This “minimalist” work, coolly greeted upon arrival, has, over the decades, inched toward the standard repertory, but whether it will ever get there is up for debate. It will never be popular and beloved, like, say, Boheme, Aida, or Don Giovanni, but as a contemporary opera it certainly holds its own against Thomas Ades' x-rated Powder Her Face, Philip Glass' ritualistic Akhnaten, Karlheinz Stochhausen's monumentally bizarre Light Operas, and his own scandal-prone The Death of Klinghoffer.
The opera possesses gravity and seriousness of purpose while it delves inside and outside Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972, an immense diplomatic coup at the time of cold war. Here is pre-Watergate Nixon shaking the clammy old hand of Chairman Mao, ruthless communist dictator. The ultimate capitalist vs. the ultimate communist. When worlds collide. It was an epochal event in international relations, and there's no good reason why it shouldn't be the subject of an opera. There's melodrama galore in its very premise; fascinating characters (Nixon, wife Pat, old Mao, his scheming wife Chiang Ch'ing, wily diplomat Henry Kissinger, and equally wily and wary Chinese premiere Chou En-lai); exotic color (all that red!); grand processionals; and even a ballet. Why, it's like Aida on the Yangtze.
Except for one important difference: Alice Goodman's execrable libretto. Poet and soon-to-be Anglican priest, Goodman overlays, smothers actually, the inherent drama under thick impasto that's impenetrable without surtitles. The coagulating wafts of aubergine suck the conflict right out of the play. Her lines aren't made any easier to comprehend when broken into syllabic fragments by Adams' jagged and percussively varied ornamentation. Phrases repeat, tones repeat, and ofttimes we watch the action come full stop after the point's already been made. Three hours of this noodling induces the tendency to drop off.
And yet, there are glories in Adams, not least his marvelous facility in orchestration which is full of surprising details like woodblocks clicking in the background or those sexy saxophones shimmying during the banquet scene. Nixon's opening aria “News,” as he descends from the Spirit of '76, is replete with nervous skittering and sweaty excitement. It's shifty. Hey, where's the president's plane? It used to roll in from the wings, a boffo coup de théâtre. Now the entourage calmly enters, surrounded by designer Allen Moyer's huge TV consoles. Ah, there's the plane in historic film clips. Well, it's something anyway, just not quite the “wow effect” from Peter Sellers' original HGO production.
While the external is amply visualized in vivid primaries, the interior life of the six main characters, overly scrutinized by Goodman, are individualized by Adams' shifting meter and tone painting. His is a varied palette with surprising echoes of old-guard Wagner that grounds the music that seems forever skittering about and behind them. Other than Kissinger (bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi), who's rendered more cartoonish than the others, these living historical figures are treated with compassion and a singular sincerity. Whether gorgon Madame Mao, a coloratura role expressively shaded by soprano Tracy Dahl, should be rendered at the end with a wash of beneficence as she remembers the beginning of her horrid cultural crusade and early days in love with Mao, is another misstep in Goodman's treatment. This “nasty woman” deserves no warmth from us. Dahl's penetrating portrait almost wins us over.
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Baritone Scott Hendricks overlays Nixon with a beady look, always mopping his upper lip and receding brow. He encapsulates fidgety Nixon without resorting to caricature, and his baritone is clear and bright. We like this Nixon. Soprano Adriana Chuchman, as Pat, brings a “stranger in a strange land” medicated quality to the First Lady who's out of her comfort zone, and her outburst during the Red Ballet, where she rushes to help the lead dancer who she thinks is under real physical attack, softens her icy demeanor. As she dresses for bed on their last night in China and recalls her younger days with Dick, we see the innocence she longs to hold onto even she knows it's gone for good. Tenor Chad Shelton's Mao is old and sick, barely able to rise off his chair at dinner. His is a portrait of absolute power gone to seed, rotting from the inside. Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan, as Premier Chou En-lai, gives this melancholy leader a resonant voice with which to rue what history will say about China and how it got there. His robust voice carries his doubts throughout the Wortham with ease.
The HGO chorus, as usual, swells magnificently in Adams' incantations of united workers and overworked peasants. Séan Curran's radical ballet, and all other choreographed movements, are viscerally exciting and fill the stage with expanse and color (there's that red, again!). Maestro Robert Spano lovingly conducts Adams as if he's Mozart, pulling out each of the distinct sounds and rhythms to give the whole a charm and warmth not necessarily associated with modern opera.
Like those terracotta warriors dominating the opening scene, Nixon in China is faded and chilly in its libretto, stripped of dramatic life under heavy-breathing poetry that doesn't quite suit any of these witnesses to history. Only Adams' score, albeit jerky but terribly rhythmic, accompanied by a strikingly handsome minimalist production, supplies the paint that gives them life.
Performances of Nixon in China continue at 2 p.m. January 22; 7:30 p.m. January 20, 24, 26 and 28. Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $15 to $354.