Princeton Festival Takes Operatic Journey Back to Historic 1972 Political Meeting
By Nancy Plum
The Princeton Festival has stretched itself well into the challenging operatic stratosphere in its 15th anniversary season this year with its mainstage production of John Adams’ Nixon in China, which opened at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre this past Sunday afternoon. For this production, Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk assembled a cast of both returning and new singers to the stage for a complex operatic production bringing humanity and poignancy to two controversial historic characters.
John Adams’ composed his 1987 opera Nixon in China to a libretto by American poet Alice Goodman, who is also an Anglican priest. The roots of Nixon in China, musically depicting Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China, were in a collaboration between Adams, innovative theater director Peter Sellars, and noted choreographer Mark Morris, from the viewpoint of the 1980s — a time when Nixon was an easy target for late-night comedians. Sellars claimed the opera idea came to him as an amalgamation of working on Franz Joseph Haydn’s 1784 opera Armida; reflecting on the Vietnam War, which had ended a decade earlier; and the writings of Henry Kissinger and Chairman Mao. Adams had been scoring a documentary on Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung and was immersed in Wagnerian operas at the time, and saw the Nixon in China story as a musical opportunity to “find our mythology in our own contemporary history.” The resulting production, a four-way international operatic commission premiered in Houston in 1987, was considered thought-provoking in its subject matter, fusing Wagnerian operatic idioms with popular American music genres in Adams’ trademark minimalistic compositional style and serving as a catalyst for future operatic treatments of current events.
Adams perceived the role of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon as closely related to Verdi’s depiction of the 14th-century Simon Boccanegra as a self-doubting and melancholy baritone. Ohio native Sean Anderson, singing the role of Nixon, was trained in Shakespearean theater as well as opera, perhaps a fitting background for portraying a president considered by many to be a personification of Shakespearean tragedy. Anderson, who previously appeared with The Princeton Festival productions of The Marriage of Figaro and Peter Grimes, immediately commanded the role of one of America’s most complicated political leaders. Although Nixon was slightly less than six feet tall, Anderson was the tallest of the male leads, towering in both physicality and attitude over his Chinese adversaries. Vocally solid in Adams’ music, Anderson also maintained a good sense of timing in replicating Nixon’s physical gestures and well conveyed the president’s love of politics and history.
As Chairman Mao, tenor Cameron Schutza brought a background in Wagnerian opera to a role conceived by the composer as a heldentenor, to match Mao’s omnipresent poster image and symbol as the leader of the Great Leap Forward. Schutza soared through his character’s high tessitura, portraying Mao as a man bordering on old age and showing tremendous dynamic control while often pulling out the Wagnerian stops from a seated position.
Soprano Rainelle Krause effectively looked the part of Pat Nixon, capturing an often worn and weary woman whose husband was the principal focus of her life. Krause sang in a consistently lyrical style, especially in her Act II soliloquy reflecting on her own good fortune. Joseph Barron, singing the role of Nixon’s right-hand man Henry Kissinger, sang with a thundering bass voice reminiscent in range of Kissinger’s own gravelly speaking voice. The role of Premier Chou En-Lai, sung by Philadelphia baritone John Viscardi, was presented as a reflective and sensitive character, closing the opera with a question for the 20th century: “Was anything we did good?” Three background “secretaries” to Mao were consistently expertly sung by mezzo-soprano Liz Culpepper and contraltos Emily Marvosh and Edith Dowd. Adams’ scoring of these voices in lower registers ensured that their vocal timbres would always blend into the musical palette, but the music for these roles required incredible precision, which these three singers always delivered.
Adams saved his vocal firecracker for late in the opera — Chairman Mao’s wife Chiang Ch’ing, sung by coloratura soprano Teresa Castillo. Not heard until the penultimate scene in the opera, Madame Mao was fierce, with political ambition to rival Argentine legend Eva Perón and vocal demands that were all over the stratosphere. Rather than the fast-moving lines which characterized coloratura roles of the past, Adams’ music required extensive repetition of intervals, which Castillo spun off with ease. Castillo’s ferocious operatic entrance capped off a scene marked by exquisite theatricality and dancing by the six dancers who performed in this production. A chorus prepared by Gregory Geehern was also consistently accurate and present, well maintaining the rhythmic stamina required for more than two hours of Adams’ minimalistic music.
he orchestral music accompanying this opera was relentless in its intensity and repetition, and the players, led by Tang Yuk, never wavered for an instant in the score’s rhythmic and harmonic complexity. Director Steven LaCosse took a unique approach to the opening and closing scenes, aided by digital backgrounds recalling the American past created by scenic and projection designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson. Among music, performers, and technology, this production of Nixon in China had many layers, and it was likely that no two audience members had the same listening or visual experience. This opera captures the story of Nixon’s vision of opening doors to China which was fraught with anxiety but replete with hope for the future. The Princeton Festival’s production certainly met the challenge of this opera and its historic story with solid performing and imaginative theater.