Tuesday, June 19, 2012

San Francisco Opera: John Adams’ Nixon in China

June 17, 2012

John Adams’ 1987 work, a project fostered by wunderkind director Peter Sellars and Houston Grand Opera director (now SFO director) David Gockley, created a watershed moment in modern American opera when, much to everyone’s surprise, it became a popular hit. The opera has maintained a place in the repertory ever since, and opened the way for a wave of new American works, including more recent SFO creations like “Dead Man Walking,” “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” and “Heart of a Soldier.”

Considering all that, I wish I could say I liked it. Following the hyper-intellectual trends of the day (postmodernism, deconstructionism), the creators of NiC gave their libretto to a poet, Alice Goodman, and decided to blow up the whole concept of opera as a storytelling form. Given the most tragic figure who has ever occupied the White House – a veritable American Macbeth – Goodman created a narrative that devolves from historic meeting to lively debate to an open-mic poetry reading featuring the most banal thoughts of the world’s most powerful figures.

A further irritation is the Glass-inspired harmonic cycling of the minimalist movement. In the short run, the device can be thrilling and rhythmically propulsive. But minimalists always seem to let this sonic freight train run non-stop, when it might be a good idea to try something different once in a while.

As far as presentation goes, SFO has thrown an enormous amount of talent and energy into the production (it’s almost worth seeing for the voices alone). After a breathtaking animation of Air Force One (Sean Nieuwenhuis, projection designer), the screen rises to Erhard Rom’s set design of the airliner, a visual so stunning it drew applause. (The production is from Vancouver Opera.)

Baritone Brian Mulligan steps to the tarmac and delivers the opera’s most memorable piece, “News is a mystery,” centered on artful opera buffo repetitions. The act proceeds to a lively debate with Mao, featuring rousing heldentenor bursts from New Zealander Simon O’Neill and funny echoes from a trio of yes-girls, then to a banquet that spins wildly out of control, thanks in part to baritone Patrick Carfizzi’s clownish, skirt-chasing Kissinger.

This is where the opera seems to run out of gas. An overlong tour of the countryside with Pat Nixon (soprano Maria Kanyova) is followed by an overlong performance of the ballet “The Red Detachment of Women” (featuring an excellent solo by Bryan Ketron). The rest of the opera is stolen by Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee, who plays Madame Mao as if her hair were on fire (in a good way). Lee is a gradute of SFO’s Merola Program, and bears watching.

The highlight of the navel-gazing third act is Nixon’s reminiscence of his wartime hamburger stand. Chou En-Lai’s musing about whether “anything we did was good,” is supposed to redeem the act (and perhaps the opera), but by then it’s too late.

It could be that NiC’s surprising endurance stems from the very absurdity of its concept (its title taken from Rossinian farces like “The Italian Girl in Algiers”). It could also derive from a continuing fascination with Nixon (the average opera-goer being plenty old enough to remember the trauma of Watergate). But the opera assumes so much background knowledge on the part of its audience, its popularity seems destined to die off.

Through July 3, War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $21-$389, 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com.

Image: Hye Jung Lee (Madame Mao Tse-tung). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is author of the novel “Operaville,” available at amazon.com, and “How to Sing,” a poem forthcoming in the literary magazine Confrontation.

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