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Balancing Act

Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
01/20/2017 -  & January 22, 24, 26, 28, 2017
John Adams: Nixon in China
Chen-Ye Yuan (Chou En-lai), Scott Hendricks (Richard Nixon), Patrick Carfizzi (Henry Kissinger), Yelena Dyachek (First Secretary to Mao), Megan Mikailovna Samarin (Second Secretary to Mao), Zoie Reams (Third Secretary to Mao), Chad Shelton (Mao Tse-tung), Adriana Chuchman (Pat Nixon), Tracy Dahl (Chian Ch’ing), Evan Copeland (Hung Ch’ang-ch’ing), Kaitlyn Yiu (Wu Ching-hua)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Spano (conductor)
James Robinson (director), Allen Moyer (set designer), James Schuette (costume designer), Paul Palazzo (lightning designer)

HGO Chorus (© Lynn Lane)

Much could be read into the fact that the first Houston revival of Nixon in China took place on Inauguration Day, 2017. The surrealist, jejune eclecticism of Alice Goodman’s libretto and John Adams’ score was particularly prescient, and the entire creative team achieved a solid, if at times flawed, production.

Adams’ extremely challenging score was fearlessly played and sung. In music this multi-layered, there are bound to be rough passages here and there, but Robert Spano, long a champion of this composer, held everything in check. His balletic left-hand cuing counterbalanced the machine-like pulse of his right hand, keeping the music endlessly moving forward and rhythmically coordinated.

A. Chuchman (© Lynn Lane)

The strongest cast members in this production were easily the women, especially Adriana Chuchman, stunning in every way as Pat Nixon. Her physical carriage, including splendid dance moves, was matched by a powerful, flexible, and always-beautiful voice, easily tossing off Adams’ extravagant leaps and maintaining clarity of tone and diction through an enormous range. Especially in the Act II ballet, where Mrs. Nixon’s demureness is tossed aside for a moment of outrage, Chuchman created a wonderfully multi-dimensional character. One wonders if Adams purposefully left ambiguity in his title: which Nixon in China is the opera really about—Richard or Pat? Chuchman’s dominance gave an interesting answer to that question.

Yelena Dyachek, Megan Samarin, and Zoie Reams, as Mao’s three secretaries hovering in the physical and musical background, also stood out. Perfect tonal blend and rhythmic accuracy were matched with almost eery automaton-like staging. It was announced at intermission that Tracy Dahl had a head cold, but her voice seemed unaffected while she soared through her virtuosic “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung” aria.

C. Yuan, C. Shelton, S. Hendricks, P. Carfizzi (© Lynn Lane)

The men were more of a mixed bag, mostly on account of balance. Scott Hendricks usually projects well over a large orchestra, but it was often difficult to hear him over Adams’ undulating textures. The same could be said of Chou En-lai, who was perhaps saving himself for his closing aria, which was wonderfully sung. By contrast, Chad Shelton’s huge voice eventually came across as one-dimensional and, in ensemble moments, unbalanced with the rest of the cast.

The visual concept was centered around mobile television screens that projected archival footage, caricatures, and various other images, acting as a silent Greek chorus. They offered an effective framing device for the action. The Act II ballet was, as is often the case, the most memorable scene in the production, vocally, musically and visually. Seán Curran’s choreography matched Adams’ purposefully excessive ballet score wonderfully.

Nixon in China is arguably Houston Grand Opera’s last great main-stage commission, and it is odd that it took 30 years for it to return to town. This production is definitely worth seeing, as musical and social commentary and as a strong performance in its own right.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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