Tonight I watched the Canadian Opera Company production of John Adams’ Nixon in China. I saw the Met High Definition broadcast recently after acquiring the Naxos CD of the opera containing virtually the same cast as the one I saw tonight. Short of a cast album of a Broadway show, WHEN have I ever had that kind of opportunity?
The parts of Richard Nixon (Robert Orth), Chou En-lai (Chen-Ye Yuan), Henry Kissinger (Thomas Hammons), and Pat Nixon (Maria Kanyova)—four of the six principals—are the same as on the Naxos CD. Although two roles are different (Adrian Thompson’s Mao and Marisol Montalvo’s Madame Mao) the musical polish displayed in this COC production is remarkable, and at times astonishing.
I found myself unable to avoid making comparisons to two operas in my recent experience:
- The Metropolitan’s production of the same opera, conducted by the composer and directed by Peter Sellars who conceived of the project in the first place; it’s being repeated in movie theatres on March 12th; unfortunately there are no remaining live performances in NYC
- The COC production of The Magic Flute
The latter must sound really absurd but I couldn’t help noticing that
- the most dominant figure in each opera is an over-the-top female sung by a coloratura soprano
- in each opera there is also a trio of females who are at times like a meditation upon the feminine, or at least a man’s exploration of woman.
Maybe it’s just a fluke? but I can’t help but think that Adams and librettist Alice Goodman must admire The Magic Flute.
More significantly, I was mindful of the differences between the two productions of Nixon in China I’d seen, and want to talk about them because I suspect many people will have seen at least the Met production if not both productions.
The COC Nixon, designed by Allen Moyer (set), James Schuette (costumes) and Wendall K Harrington (video designer), and directed by James Robinson, looks and feels quite different than the Met’s production. Sometimes the Met production felt as though it were being conservative, compared to the more radical co-production Toronto rented (produced by St Louis + Chicago + Colorado + Houston +Minnesota + Portland), problematizing and re-thinking the opera. At other times, i thought that Sellars was the one bringing the subtler approach to bear.
Throughout the first act, which might be a departure point for Sellars, i felt we were on comfortable ground, watching the Nixons get off a reasonable facsimile of a Boeing 707. When Richard Nixon sings his “News” aria, he is simultaneously shaking hands with a row of Chinese, even as his mind wanders away. In Toronto, while the lineup mimed shaking, Nixon walked across a different part of the stage, illustrating just how odd this moment is. Why, after all, shouldn’t an operatic character sing an aria while performing an action? The Met version gives it as written, whereas the Toronto production unpacks the oddities & complexities throughout the evening.
Most challenging is the use of video. What exactly are we watching, and just where are we, as this opera unfolds? While we do observe the same actions as in the Met production, we see a series of images on a series of TV screens, as well as the occasional visit from the average American TV viewing family in their living room. Nixon not only comments on the phenomenon of being in the news, he walks among them, a living icon. Such moments reverberate with complexities.
This tendency doesn’t work so well for me in Act II. When Henry Kissinger appears in the COC’s Act II opera-within-the-opera, it’s explained for us by Kissinger’s cognitive dissonance, Pat’s confusion and RMN’s assurances, whereas the mysterious metatheatre is disturbing in the Met’s production. When Pat jumps into the Met’s revolutionary ballet it feels cataclysmic because she seamlessly blends into the illusionary world of the ballet; Toronto’s equivalent isn’t nearly so disturbing because they made it very clear for us. I loved the ambiguity in the Met’s production.
There’s a trade-off, of course. I experienced the big aria from the Met’s Chiang Ch’ing as a mere temper tantrum, interrupting a very powerful tableau. In Toronto, where the deconstructed ballet in Toronto is less fearsome or powerful as ideology, Madame Mao’s aria comes across as overwhelmingly powerful. Where the Met version of the aria was decidedly operatic and even fun, i found the Toronto aria, from Marisol Montalvo, very scary theatre. The chorus of singers and dancers around her seemed genuinely cowed by her aura. Yes, Montalvo sang wonderfully, but she moved with the lithe grace of a jungle cat, prowling among those she could devour if she wanted. The scene felt genuinely dangerous. Wow.
In Act III we have another sort of divergence. Where the Met’s Act III seems to be a gentle exploration of the inner lives of the characters, the COC version is far lighter, exploiting the dances that are spoken of in the libretto far more than what we get from the Met. Madame Mao is clearly still a great dancer, observed by a passive & voyeuristic Mao. The Chairman physically assaults her: a necessary reminder that Mao Tse-tung isn’t just a cute old man, but an authoritarian and a thug. This picks up on one of her lines, when she says to Mao “Nothing I fear has ever harmed me, why should you?” But he does. There’s nothing as nasty in the Met version.
My favourite passage in Adams’ opera is the very end. After the reminiscences of the couples, Chou En-lai looks to the future. I didn’t expect to be moved nearly so much in Toronto by Chen-Ye Yuan as i had been in the movie theatre hearing and seeing Russell Braun. As you may recall from my earlier review, Braun played historical subtext, that Chou was slowly dying of cancer even as he continued to work with stoicism and dignity. Yuan plays up the hard-work, mimicing images on video of oxen tirelessly labouring.
But I didn’t need any subtext, hearing Chou’s lines in a delicious duet with the COC orchestra:
Just before dawn the birds begin.
The warblers who prefer the dark,
the cage-birds answering. To work!
Outside this room the chill of grace
lies heavy on the morning grass.
….Listen to it from about 5 minutes into this youtube sample (a different production NB, but fabulous writing from Adams & Goodman).
Aided by the COC orchestra & chorus, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado, this is one of the finest productions I’ve ever seen at the Four Seasons Centre. There’s only one remaining performance on February 26th.