As I’m sure I’ve said here before, for me the most important component of opera, followed by the singing/singers, followed by their actings: components that transfer to audio recordings. Looking the part is too rare to be a criterion for evaluation, and lots of productions these days get in the way of the singers/the music. Nonetheless, sometimes staging can be so impressive that it counts for something even for someone who absorbs sound best with his eyes closed (me).
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I have heard the CD (which I am now reviewing) several times since its 1987 release and never found it compelling as a whole nor in any of its parts. What I liked best seeing the San Francisco Opera (Vancouver Opera) production last week was the second act crypto-Stravinskian ballet (The Red Detachment of Women), something that really does not come across on audio recording. It is followed by the one great (but nearly unsingable) aria in the opera, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung,” a song of fury something akin to the first aria by the Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute.” Trudy Caney was valiant in facing the vocal challenges (the aria keeps jumping up to high D) on the recording, but in her San Francisco Opera debut (two years out of its training program) Korean-American soprano Hye-Jung Lee was sensational, her voice not sounding strained by music that seems to me written with outright hostility to the human voice. (That she looks Asian, because she is Asian, was a bonus!)
I thought that Chinese baritone Chen-Ye Yuan (also making his San Francisco Opera debut) was fine as Chou Enlai and really looked like Premier Chou. I’d give the recording’s Sanford Sylvan a slight edge in the singing, but neither of Chou’s arias (or at least extended solos), the first-act toast nor the third act “I Am Old And I Cannot Sleep” has the melodic heft needed.
The most singable and memorable number is the first act chorus “The People Are/ The Heroes Now.” There is another excellent chorus, “Look Down at the Earth” in the second act. And I like the repetitions of news, history, and mystery in Richard Nixon’s aria upon landing in Beijing/Peking (“News Has a Kind of Mystery”) that well fits the minimalist music. The rest of the vocal writing seems serviceable rather than inspired to me.
Despite being impressed at the production I just saw, I remain dubious about the opera as a drama and revolting historical misrepresentation. There are major spectacles in the first two acts: the arrival of Air Force One and the banquet toasting in the first act and the ballet put on by Chiang Ch’ing (Jiang Qin: Madame Mao) segueing into her terrifying aria at the end of the second act. The third act seems to come from a different opera. The Nixons, Chou, and the Maos all reminisce in reveries (for a time Richard Nixon is retelling his WWII experiences to Pat, but the others don’t seem to be addressing anyone in particular) and the Chairman (Mao) dances, though this is much shorter than the concert version of “The Chairman Dances.”
The audience is supposed to sympathize for these sad and lost souls? Chou might well ask “How much of what we did was good?” though I doubt he did. I am certain he ever thought about “the chill of grace (the subject of the last sentence of the opera).
The absurdity of the dances, Chiang Ch’ing’s (Jiang Qing’s) ballet and her dance with her husband bring “Springtime for Hitler,” the travesty planned in “The Producers.” Mao Zedong was responsible for more deaths (both total and of his own people) than Hitler and the benign Mao of the opera is more likely to stick in memory than the direct propaganda from his lifetime. And Chou was Mao’s willing tool throughout.
Richard Nixons was a complicated person, consumed with resentments that were not stilled by being elected president twice. The cover-up of the White House instigation of the Watergate break-in was IMO among the least of his crimes, the most heinous (one I consider outright treason) sabotaging the Paris Peace Talks in 1968 and continuing the futile war on Vietnam, the secret bombing of Cambodia (and Laos), collusion with Pinochet & Co. in overthrowing the elected government in Chile, and the petty chiseling that led to his famous “I am not a crook” lie.
I don’t claim to know what was going on inside the head of Pat Nixon through her long-running standing by her justly maligned husband, and don’t particularly care if librettist Alice Goodman supplied her more interesting interiority than the real Pat Nixon had.
Goodman presents a libidinous caricature of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Zhou (which is to say co-conspirator in regard to Cambodia, Chile, Vietnam, and elsewhere) that is unfair, but also distracts from Kissinger, the war criminal (who has good reason to be afraid to set foot anywhere in the European Union, where, like Pinochet, he would surely be arrested).
OK opera stylizes and simplifies when it uses historical characters, but in an opera titled “Nixon in China” and about Nixon’s encounters with Mao and Chou there should have been some indication that the meeting and greeting was aimed at a mutual enemy, the Soviet Union (which was the prime backer of North Vietnam’s conquest of South Vietnam). If De Gaulle’s name can be fit in, there could at least have been allusions to Leonid Brezhnev. (There were USSR/PRC border skirmishes earlier in 1968 and Mao’s designated successor at the time, Lin Biao, was warning of Soviet military buildups along the Chinese border. The libretto also takes no notice of the chaos unleashed on China beginning in 1966 of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which had not even reached the ouster of Liu Shaoqi (six months after Nixon’s visit, with the vilification read by Mr. Nice Guy of the opera, Zhou Enlai, btw).
Getting back to the music, there are some big band sounds, with especially prominent saxophones along with lots and lots and lots and lots or Glassy pulsations. James Maddalena deserved the praise he received for his operatic impersonation of the awkward Tricky Dick. (On repeated hearings Carolann Pann’s Pat Nixon becomes ever blurrier, for which I blame the composer and librettist much more than the singer).
For me, the opera was fascinating on stage but remains unexciting, even boring, on disc. The vocal solos (with the exception of “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung,” a romanization far more difficult to sing than “Mao Zedong” would be) strike me as exposition (recitatives rather than arias). Melody is not a forte of Adams, though he has launched more operas and oratorios since 1987.
©2012, Stephen O. Murray
My other epinions of Adams vocal music in the order of their composition:
Harmonium (my favorite)
A Flowering Tree
(I've never listened to "The Death of Klinghoffer," which was interesting to watch; I saw the Peter Sellars production. The LA Philharmonic just premiered another oratorio with texts selected by Sellars: The Gospel According to the Other Mary.)