‘Nixon in China’ a Glorious Season Finale for San Diego Opera

When composer John Adams chalked up the global success of his first opera Nixon in China to “beginner’s luck,” it was easy to perceive his puckish humor taking charge. But mere luck clearly did not bring about the triumph of San Diego Opera’s extraordinary production of Nixon in China that opened Saturday (March 14) at Civic Theatre.

Patrick Carfizzi, Franco Pomponi, Maria Kauyova & Chen-ye Yuan [photo (c) Ken Howard

Patrick Carfizzi, Franco Pomponi, Maria Kanyova & Chen-ye Yuan [photo (c) Ken Howard

An electric cast, acute direction, brilliant support from the pit, and a simple but sophisticated set worked in perfect harmony to give San Diego the thrill of experiencing one of the last century’s greatest works for the opera stage. San Diego Opera’s Nixon speaks directly to the heart and gives the mind much to contemplate after the final curtain.

History? Politics? Romance? Melodrama? Compassion? Introspection? Saturday’s opening night production offered generous portions of each in compelling tableaux.

This Nixon focused on the 1972 political media spectacle that Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman both celebrate and question, and the production—originally from the Opera Theatre of St. Louis by way of Houston Grand Opera—juxtaposes our contemporary infatuation with banks of video screens showing different aspects of a news story rolling simultaneously, except with the techology of the 1970s. So instead of rows of massive, sleek flat-screen monitors, the set is happily cluttered with the boxy, massive TV consoles of the 1970s.

Franco Pomponi [photo (c) Ken Howard]

Franco Pomponi [photo (c) Ken Howard]

Sometimes the pictures on these screens projected historical footage of the actual 1972 Nixon visit, juxtaposing the news reality of then with the dramatic interpration of now, allowing the audience to pursue its own metaphysical speculations and conclusions.

Like the company’s production of Don Giovanni last month, this cast’s vocal prowess energized every scene. Franco Pomponi used his powerful, rich baritone instrument to give us a Nixon we could almost love, alternating strong-willed self-confidence with awkward insecurity and poignant nostalgia. As Pat Nixon, soprano Maria was positively radiant, her gorgeous lyric soprano more vivid than her bright-red “going to China” designer dress. Her extended aria “This is prophetic!” was nothing less than mesmerizing, sending my imagination into flights of anticipation—I want to hear her sing Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Case or Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West! Or any of the familiar verismo roles she has already tucked into her impressive resume.

Soprano Kathleen Kim delighted San Diego Opera audiences as Oscar in last season’s A Masked Ball,

Kathleen Kim [photo (c) Ken Howard]

Kathleen Kim [photo (c) Ken Howard]

and her Madame Mao Tse-Tung proved even more exciting and vocally brilliant. Although her big aria “I am the wife of Chairman Mao” is supposed to commuincate the unsavory side of her manipulative character, as she knocked out this aria—which arguably makes Mozart’s fabled Queen of the Night arias seem like mere warm-up exercises—she won us over with her consummate vocal splendor. But how can we complain that great singing is impeding the credulity of character delineation?

In the opera, the aging Chairman Mao is called “the

Franco Pomponi, Chen-ye Yuan & Chad Shelton [photo (c) Ken Howard]

Franco Pomponi, Chen-ye Yuan & Chad Shelton [photo (c) Ken Howard]

philosopher,” but that is just a polite way of saying “ideologue,” and Adams keeps this role in the highest tenor tessitura, an ironic heldentenor casting that demands much of a singer. Chad Shelton sounded strained at first, but he owned the role as the drama progressed and projected a level of empathy in the closing scene that I have not experienced in previous productions of this opera. Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan’s Chou En-Lai completely captured the seasoned diplomat’s poise and politesse, although I thought his banquet speech aria was overly restrained.

If the Henry Kissenger role is little more than wallpaper until he emerges as the evil landowner in the political ballet designed by Madame Mao for the Americans’ entertainment, baritone Patrick Carfizzi took advantage of his moment to shine, adding melodramatic snarl to his dark vocal color and mustache-twirling physical details. The singers Buffy Baggott, Sarah Castle, and Jennifer Dedominici gave disciplined and aptly neutral vocal character to their trio of loyal Aids to Chairman Mao.

As in many other historical operas, the Nixon chorus is pivotal. Charles F. Prestinari’s opera chorus sang lustily, moving with exceptional fluidity, and their great anthem “The peasants are the heroes now” bristled with verve and rhythmic vitality. Conductor Joseph Mechavich, who brought us an electric Moby-Dick a few seasons back, drew a fine performance form the orchestra, stressing wamth and supple lines in even the most minimal textures. He paced Adams’ magnificent orchestral climaxes for maximum effect, especially in the crowd scenes. The orchestra exhibited precise ensemble playing throughout, and the keyboards—de rigueur for any score with a minimalist pedigree—dazzled.

Director James Robinson paced his opera well, given all the grand tableaux and speech-making that threaten to bog it down. His details, however, provided the unexpected but beautifully understated gifts: the typical middle-American family seated with their TV-dinners on snack trays watching the events in Bejing; the circular banquet tables that turned every few moments like an oversized lazy Susan, an accoutrement the young Nixon’s surely owned in their younger days—a time hymned by Pat Nixon in her nostalgic “Oh, California” aria in the final act.

If the choreography for Madame Mao’s entertainment “The Red Detachment of Women” does not wow the audience with bold but somehow cliched moves, that whole episode unravels. Happily, Seán Curran’s choreography captured all those nuances and was executed with stilted fervor by principal dancers Julio Catano-Yee and Khamla Somphanh and their excellent corps.

Maria Kanyova [photo (c) Ken Howard]

Maria Kanyova [photo (c) Ken Howard]

Allen Moyer’s set, awash in blinding bright reds, was at its best suggesting rather than depicting. Who will be able to forget the two-dimensional pigs as demonstration placards used for Pat’s visit to a rural farm or the gilded architects’ model of the historical Summer Palace, another stop on her good-will adventure? James Schuette’s costumes were aptly anchored in their period, but I thought Pat Nixon’s gauzy dressing gown and Dick’s oversized bathrobe were unusually deft touches, as was Madame Mao’s beautifully tailored print outfit in the last scene.

Pat’s red coat was absolutely perfect!

Paul Palazzo’s lighting kept on the bold side of the palette, but his subtle shading of the final scene matched the composer’s own intentionally anti-climactic finish.

Although next month will bring two more events in the San Diego Opera 2014-15 season, the 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert and a new mariachi opera El pasado nunca se termina, Nixon in China brings the company’s 2015 grand opera offerings to a close. The caliber of the 2015 Civic Theatre operas has surpassed any SDO season in recent memory. Does anyone need better proof that this company deserves to thrive and play its rightful role in the American opera scene?

What a difference a year makes!

Three more performances of John Adams’ ‘Nixon in China’ will be presented at Civic Theatre: March 17 & 20, 2015 at 7:00 p.m., and a Sunday matinee on March 22 at 2:00 p.m. 

Tickets: sdopera.com; (619) 533-7000.

Nixon  in China Program & Bios

1 A B C D E G I J L M N O P Q R S T U W
Photo of San Diego Civic Theatre
San Diego Civic Theatre
Third Ave. & B Street San Diego CA 92101 Work Phone: (619) 533-7000
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