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‘Nixon in China’ fuses national and personal histories

Nixon in China

  • Canadian Opera Company
  • At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Saturday

I doubt that anyone will make an opera of Hu Jintao's recent visit to Washington, though as America's biggest creditor the Chinese president may have more sway over U.S. affairs than Mao Zedong ever did. When Richard Nixon flew to Beijing in 1972, however, he was seen by everyone to be taking a step beyond the edge of the known political universe.

Composer John Adams joked a dozen years later that the Nixon opera he was writing with librettist Alice Goodman would be "kind of like [Rossini's] An Italian in Algiers," but Nixon in China is much more than a farce set in an exotic locale. It treats the famous trip as a fusion of national and personal histories, something historic yet also exactly life-sized.

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The COC's first-ever production, created by James Robinson for Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2004, takes careful stock of the work in all its registers of meaning. It draws out themes that were less explicit in the realistic debut productionof 1987.

Designer Allen Moyer has taken the president's excited opening aria about the "mystery" of TV news as his cue to make a dozen console-style TV sets a nearly omnipresent element of the show. When the rippling arpeggiated music told us that Nixon's plane was approaching, what actually descended were two ranks of those TVs, each one showing images of the plane in flight.

The TVs rolled around the stage throughout the show, as all-purpose furnishings and dispensers of actual footage from the trip – too much footage, in the end, as if we needed constant reminding that the opera was based on actual events. Moyer's boxy all-red set, cleverly lit by Paul Palazzo, needed little else to become Mao's study, a strangely underpopulated banquet hall, a model farm and the theatre where the Nixons watch a ballet choreographed by Mao's wife, Chiang Ch'ing (in reality, by Sean Curran, a Bill T. Jones alumnus who on this showing has become an excellent choreographer).

A long row of miniature terracotta warriors stood in as signifiers of China's past, and a mute Chinese peasant lurked about the set as representative of "the people" whom we hear about but otherwise don't see. The COC Chorus, in excellent form vocally, took the stage before the music began for a symbolic display of unison Tai chi.

Baritone Robert Orth had Nixon's diplomatic stiffness and forced bonhomie down pat, and his rather strident tone seemed exactly right for someone who is conscious of speaking to the world. Tenor Adrian Thompson, another singer with a cutting vocal edge, played Mao as a cynical idealist in a failing cloak of flesh, falling asleep in his chair between pithy comments about the fate of revolutions and the "dirty sow" of history. Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan played Chou En-lai as the Chairman's thoughtful counterweight, with a warm and eloquent singing style that suited the most knowing character in the opera.

Soprano Maria Kanyova was an excellent choice for Pat Nixon, whose poetic reveries during her tour of a pig farm seemed like the more affecting first draft of Kitty Oppenheimer's visionary ravings in Adams's recent opera, Dr. Atomic. Soprano Marisol Montalvo's fierce demeanour was just right for Chiang Ch'ing's ballet scene, and she had some lovely moments in the elegiac final scene, but her pitch was shaky and she sounded timid during the show-stopping aria, I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung,

Bass-baritone Thomas Hammons excelled as Henry Kissinger, a role he created in 1987, even skipping out a few adroit dance steps during his turn as a wicked Chinese landlord. Mao's three secretaries were amusingly portrayed by mezzo-sopranos Lauren Segal, Rihab Chaieb and Megan Latham.

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Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, in his COC debut, led a clear and energetic performance of the heavily patterned score, though did not always manage a happy marriage between orchestra and voices. He carelessly allowed the saxes and other winds to swamp the singers during the meeting with Mao.

The COC's production of Nixon in China continues at the Four Seasons Centre through Feb. 26.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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