“It’s yesterday night,” sings Richard Nixon near the top of Nixon in China, the landmark John Adams opera now revived as part of the Princeton Festival. How right he is—though not for the reasons intended by composer Adams and librettist Alice Goodman. What once seemed like a revolutionary advancement of an art form now feels like a relic of an earlier time.
When the work premiered at Houston Grand Opera (HGO) in 1987, several factors distinguished it as a new touchstone of the genre. How often does a work on the operatic scale consider events of the recent past—in this case, one that involved a then-living central figure? Adams and Goodman elevated the disgraced ex-president to the pantheon of flawed operatic heroes with their treatment of his historic 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China, ushering in a period of détente after a quarter-century of strained relations.
It also represented the first time Adams, an enfant terrible of the classical music world, brought his particular brand of minimalism to the opera house. The composer has gone on to write a half-dozen more operas, none of which captured the cultural attention in quite the same way. I would venture to say that each subsequent work suffers from problematic elements already present in Nixon in China—factors that are undeniable even in the Princeton Festival’s musically sound staging.
Adams pioneered the technique of looping, in which key musical phrases repeat, often unaltered, throughout a work. This can come across as beguiling and intentionally jarring in a brief composition, but when stretched across a three-hour dramatic work—the most maximalist minimalism you can imagine—it more often provokes frustration.
The musical language could have been made interesting if Adams used it to mirror the tension between the political actors in his story—President Nixon, Chairman Mao, Premier Chou En-Lai, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—but it more often seems like cleverness for its own sake.
The endless repetition also stifles the ability to create character through music, a necessary feature of operatic writing. With the exception of Madame Mao—the Chairman’s hard-driving loyalist wife, for whom Adams supplies blazing, exposed coloratura flourishes—the vocal lines all sound relentlessly similar. When two or more characters sing over each other, which happens often, the result resembles white noise.
Goodman helps matters little with her pseudo-profound libretto, which may have once sounded poetic but now hews closer to ponderous. Its treatment of women seems undeniably retrograde by today’s standards, as the two prominent female characters—Madame Mao and First Lady Pat Nixon—are presented as little more than a shrieking harridan and a demure hausfrau, respectively.
The original HGO production, which the Metropolitan Opera preserved in a commercially available DVD, at least had an undeniable visual appeal that spirited the storytelling forward. Who can forget Adrienne Sobel’s iconic set design, with the Spirit of ’76 gliding onto the stage, big as life? Director Steven LaCosse obviously has to work on a more modest scale, but the result is often static and uninvolving. The performers often stand and deliver their arias directly to the audience, as if performing in an oratorio.
A series of visual projections (by Jonathan Dahm Robertson, who also did the scenic design) set a heavy-handed tone, overlaying the action with images of current-day sweatshops, “Made in China” labels, and footage from the Tiananmen Square standoff. These touchstones only underscore how far the United States, and China, have come from the world depicted in the opera—they make an audience wonder why we devote resources to this piece rather than looking to new representations of either culture.
Strong voices and orchestra
For his part, conductor Richard Tang Yuk draws a strong performance from the orchestra. Although some tuning and coordination issues persisted, particularly among the winds and brass, the collective forces played particularly well—especially for a pickup pit band.
Yuk has also assembled the most vocally consistent cast I’ve heard at the Festival. Baritones Sean Anderson (Nixon) and John Viscardi (Chou En-Lai) and bass Joseph Barron (Kissinger) represented the low voices well, with Viscardi particularly effective in the closing solo aria, “I am old and I cannot sleep.” Cameron Schutza deployed a ringing tenor in Chairman Mao’s unforgivingly high music, showing no sign of strain during the character’s first-act monologue.
Rainelle Krause brought a plangent lyric soprano to Pat Nixon; better yet, she provided a necessary sense of dignity whenever possible. Teresa Castillo attacked Madame Mao’s acuti with fearless abandon and a much-needed dose of humor. The chorus, under Gregory Geehern’s direction, performed with admirable polish.
I have long admired the Princeton Festival for its willingness to program works that challenge audiences and diverge from the commercial repertory, and Nixon in China certainly fits that bill. But encountering it in 2019 serves as a reminder that what once made headlines can quickly turn into yesterday’s news.
What, When, Where
Nixon in China. By John Adams and Alice Goodman. Conducted by Richard Tang Yuk. Directed by Steven LaCosse. The Princeton Festival. June 23 and 30, 2019, at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, New Jersey. (609) 258-2787 or princetonfestival.org.
McCarter Theatre Center is a barrier-free building, with accessible seating and restroom facilities located on the orchestra level. To request accommodations to Princeton Festival events, patrons can call (609) 759-0379 or email [email protected].