Sunday, March 14, 2010
Nixon in China
"The myths of our time are not Cupid and Psyche but characters like Mao and Nixon," said the American composer John Adams.
He was referring of course to his opera, Nixon in China, first performed in 1987 and having to wait, incredibly, this long for its first Canadian production, and we have Vancouver Opera to thank for it.
The situation deals with Richard Nixon's visit in 1972 to red China, until then a terra incognita, which in many ways it remains. Richard and Pat, Chairman and Madame Mao, Chou-En lai and Henry Kissinger are the subjects of some very strange music that bears a superficial resemblance to Philip Glass's motoric rhythms and ostinatos but in a decidedly superior way. Adams's is more subtle and variable, more deftly scored, more expressive, warmer but only up to an important point.
It serves to underline the alienation of some extremely alien circumstances.
The characters seem to have reached an entente by the end of the second act but it's an illusory one. Both sides are left stunned by a set of paradoxes in which they've found themselves—a parallel inscrutability which is echoed by Edel Rodriguez's wonderful poster.
The production is nothing less than superb and goes across the board: the direction of Michael Cavanagh, John DeMain conducting the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, the scenic design of Erhard Rom, the costuming of Parvin Mirhady, and especially the singing. Here we have the untouchable Robert Orth as Richard Nixon, Sally Dibblee as Pat, Tracy Dahl as Madame Mao, Alan Woodrow as Mao, ChenYe Yuan as Chou-En lai and the faultless Vancouver Opera Chorus, which has a very big part here. The audience was rapt.
Adams and his excellent librettist Alice Goodman are very generous to the humbly-born Pat Nixon, whose lines include memorably, perhaps prophetically, "I foresee a time when luxury evaporates into the atmosphere, like perfume."