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A Successful Canadian Premiere

Queen Elizabeth Theatre
03/13/2010 -  and March 16*, 18, 20
John Adams: Nixon in China
Robert Orth (Richard Nixon), Alan Woodrow (Mao Tse-tung), Sally Dibblee (Pat Nixon), ChenYe Yuan (Chou En-lai), Tracy Dahl (Chiang Ch’ing), Thomas Hammons (Henry Kissinger), Melissa Malde (Nancy T’sang, First Secretary to Mao), Grace Chan (Second Secretary), Rebecca Hass (Third Secretary), Fei Guo (Wu Ching-Hua), Edmond Kilpatrick (Hung Ch’Anf-ch’ing)
Vancouver Opera Chorus, Leslie Dala (Chorus Director and Associate Conductor), Vancouver Opera Orchestra and Chorus, John DeMain (Conductor)
Michael Cavanagh (Director), Wen Wei Wang (Choreographer), Erhard Rom (Scenic Designer), Parvin Mirhady (Costume Designer), Sean Nieuwenhuis (Projections Designer), Harry Frehner (Lighting Designer), Andrew Tugwell (Sound Designer)

A. Woodrow & R. Orth (© Tim Matheson)

Since its Houston premiere in 1987, John Adams’ Nixon In China has had a performance track record that is surely the envy of other contemporary composers. Recent years seem to have experienced an increased number of productions, not to mention a second commercial recording of the work.

This production by Vancouver Opera is the work’s Canadian premiere and is funded by the 2010 Cultural Olympiad which has an emphasis on trans-Pacific cultural links.

Overall the production is everything one could wish for, with deft use of projections that interface with stage action. The opening especially is an exhilarating coup de théâtre as a film showing the landing of Air Force One blends into an apparently life-size stage mock-up from which President and Mrs. Nixon descend. From then on scene changes are fluid and the overall look of the production, with a distinctive colour palet, is very striking.

If this work has always been performed with amplification it seems to have gone unremarked. The program contains a special note on the amplification, calling our attention to the audio-mixing console at the rear of the theatre, operated by “Sound Designer” Andrew Tugwell, whose recent experience includes Evil Dead the Musical. The Mozart-size orchestra (48 players) includes three keyboardists whose electronic sounds call for the enhancement of the acoustic instruments (microphones are distributed throughout the pit) and thus also the singers. The amplification is far from rock concert or even Broadway musical decibel level (mercifully!) Nor do the singers, when singing full out, overwhelm the system (as I’ve heard in other miked performances). However, the end result is a much more unyielding barrage of sound than one usually hears - even from noisy composers like Wagner - as no acoustic room need be created for the unassisted voices of the singers. Frankly I think it’s a pity that this is so, as I find the Adams basic sound and style both stimulating and dramatic. (As for its being called “minimalist”: the work contains some 1850 changes in meter; the result is not what I would call minimalist.)

The libretto is in places just too darn poetic. It is alternately engrossing and off-putting - Alice Goodman obviously wants to keep the audience at one remove. (The use of period names - e.g., Peking instead of Beijing - adds to this effect.) While (to cite one example of a work based on a recent historical figure) Lloyd Webber’s Evita both glamourizes and critiques its heroine, this work veers off in many directions. It doesn’t overtly seek to mythologize its self-mythologizing characters (although simply by putting them in an opera this happens), but neither does it satirize them (except in places - and staging might have something to do with this, as when Nixon does a jaunty two-step on the stair of Air Force One). It uses historical source material (some of it very detailed), but is by no means a documentary.

Richard Nixon emotes mostly platitudes, with a major change in Act III when he reminisces about his past life in the army during World War II. Robert Orth is well-practiced in the role and plays it for all it’s worth.

Chairman Mao is given an overly lengthy series of paradoxical aphorisms for his three busy secretaries to try to capture in writing. Alan Woodrow’s heldentenor voice is one that seems to need the amplification least. He delivers the role with a great deal of punch.

Sally Dibblee also does well with her portrayal of Pat Nixon as down-to-earth and sensible, although she veers off into platitudes similar to her husband’s. And what are we to make of her naive response to the dire plight of the heroine in the kitschy agitprop performance of The Red Detachment of Women?

ChenYe Yuan has a pleasant, well-produced voice and gets to play the wisest character, Chou En-lai. During the lengthy interchange between Nixon and Mao some of his brief lines fail to come through as best they might (the audio mixing might be at fault here). He gets the final say in the opera in the quiet, thoughtful coda to Act III.

Thomas Hammons (Henry Kissinger), like conductor John DeMain, was in the original Houston production. He even maintains his sour-faced persona when taking his bows.

Tracy Dahl has a lyric voice of almost uncanny accuracy; I last heard her in this theatre in the role of Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. With the amplification she sounds ready to take on Tosca if not Turandot. She gives a well-focused performance of Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao) as a true bossy boots.

Smaller roles are well-performed, and chorus and orchestra display unflagging energy. The dance troupe, headed by Fei Guo (as the beleagured heroine, Wu Ching-Hua) and Edmond Kilpatrick, give a well-defined account of the socialist-realist dance performance.

I’ll be seeing Nixon in China again when it is presented in Toronto next season. I suspect it is one of those works that creates a different impression at every (re-)hearing.

Michael Johnson



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