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Nixon in China.

In 1972, Richard Nixon opened diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China with an unprecedented trip to Beijing. In 1987, Nixon in China opened at the Houston Grand Opera, when one critic regarded the work as coy and insubstantial. Set during five days of February 1972, it traces most of the itinerary of Nixon and his entourage in that historic visit. In 2006, from a historical viewpoint, both Nixon's trip and John Adams' opera must be regarded as hugely significant. China's opening to the West was inevitable. Was Nixon prescient? Adams, with librettist Alice Goodman, were certainly so.


Portland Opera, co-producing with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Minnesota Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Houston Grand Opera and Opera Colorado, presented an exciting vision of this significant American opera in Mar./Apr. The production featured an open stage in mostly Communist red, and had a beautiful and appropriate lighting design. The evening began with a lone woman performing tai chi-like gestures. Behind her, chorus members gradually replaced a small army of terra cotta warriors and joined in the movements. When finally in place, the chorus rang forth with "Soldiers of Heaven Open the Sky," and then welcomed the arrival of the Spirit of '76 airplane as it flew across two banks of suspended television screens. Coming down the ramp, a smiling Richard Nixon (Robert Orth) was greeted by Chou En-lai (Keith Phares) and as they shook hands, the historic NBC footage was projected behind them. The rest of Acts I and II follow Nixon, Henry Kissinger (Jan Opalach), Pat Nixon (Nancy Allen Lundy) and Mao (Mark Duffin) with his personal three secretary-chorus as they meet, dine and, especially Pat Nixon, tour Beijing. Canadian Tracy Dahl's appearance late in Act II, as Chiang Ch'ing, lit up the stage as she sang "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung!" With black-framed glasses and resplendent in basic-black communist peasant clothing, Dahl portrayed Madame Mao as the powerhouse that history would only later reveal.

Act III follows the six principals in a set of quiet, interior monologues as they prepare for bed. The aging Mao, Chou and Kissinger are offset by musings of the Nixons and Madame Mao. After the fireworks of the previous acts, this finale is surprising and thought-provoking as the characters reveal inner thoughts and memories. Here, Adams' music is haunting, spare and sweet.

The only flaw in James Robinson's original production (as directed by Kevin Lee Newbury) was the use of the terra cotta warriors. These giant figures (reduced for this production) were discovered in 1974, and using them in an opera that so carefully depicts 1972 is wrong. But Dahl's bravura performance and Orth's accurate portrayal of Nixon with Adams music overshadowed this one design oddity.
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Author:Quan, Walter
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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