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Sunday, May 28, 2006

By the (Little Red) Book, II: Electric, Communist Boogaloo

Ok, I did not bring my A game to the first act of Nixon in China. You know it. I know it. But I've had my 42 minutes of sleep (41 minutes of which appear to have involved me dreaming that the M was urgently trying to wake me up, saying that L had showed up an hour early, and my brain insisting that this was not possible, because that would mean he had arrived before I tried to go to sleep), and now I'm rarin' to go.

I should back up to scene III of Act I momentarily, both because it deserves it and because I forgot to note a few things important to the second Act II. So, remember how I remarked on Alexander Platt's mad love for Adams and for this opera? He could and did go further: He placed it with Porgy & Bess and West Side Story as the great American operas---the operas that, as an American opera apologist, one didn't have to insist that it would be perfect if only you could cut the S&M orgy aria from the second act. (Ok, I made up the S&M orgy part based on a play I once accidentally suggested for Shoestring, not having read it all the way through. Never did I feel more that the Best Brains were of my kind when they told essentially the same story about how they wound up doing Sidehackers.)

Leaving aside quetions of the greatness and operaticness of West Side story for the moment, why does this comment matter in particular and why, for the love of the most tentacly of the eldergods, am I backtracking to Act I, rather than getting on with it? It's worse than that, because I've just realized that I am actually going to back up to Act I, scene ii, ever so briefly. So my brain was dribbling out my ear, I was bitter about it, and trying to drag you all along for the ride. That sensation, born of the linguistic barrage in Act I, scene ii, is almost entirely, but not quite unlike Sondheim. Sondheim's lyrical complexity is almost entirely concentrated in unusual rhymes and whacked out cadences. It's incredibly difficult for cast and musicians, but the highwire act looks effortless from the seats. Contentwise, Sondheim is smart and witty, but it's not, you know, all that deep. Goodman's libretto, in contrast, go head to head with the layered nature of Adams' music. Nonetheless, West Side Story (Sondheim's lyrics, Bernstein's music) certainly fits on the same knick-knack shelf as Nixon in some sense.

In Act I, scene iii, Nixon's place within Platt's troika is more explicit. The banquets in honor of the Nixons are, of course, crammed full of things the Chinese think will appeal to them. Pat and Dick dance cheek-to-cheek to a slightly off big band song. The choreography for the servers (still in their vintage (PLA uniforms) is more or less directly lifted from the requisite big dance numbers of Hello Dolly, My Fair Lady, and other works from the golden age of big flashy musicals. Musically, there are brief hints of homage to Bernstein, Rogers and Hammerstein, and so on. Adams takes this a brilliant step further, and as the night wears on and the toasts flow more and more freely, Pat's vocal line turns into an unending of stereotypical cadenzas and vocal flourishes, completely without content, the perfect model of a stereotypical, operatic soprano. By then end, she is no longer Pat, or even Mrs. Nixon, she is simply The First Lady and a society wife.

Basically Adams goes a long way to turn me into a hypocrite. See, I'd rather eat bees made of broken glass than listen to Copland for any length of time, because the relentless repetition of superduper Americanness just fills me with rage. And yet scene iii's buffet of Americana suited me just fine. Again, I have to credit Platt with opening up a part of this view to me, as he'd mentioned in his lecture that Nixon was a half decent pianist (and the fact that he and Pat met when they were working on a play) who sincerely enjoyed the music of the WWII era and after, so the increasingly American tone of the music throughout this act made good emotional sense.

At long last on to Act II, though, which belongs to the women. Another point that Platt hit on in his lecture was the fact that the original 1987 staging by Peter Sellars was extremely literal. This proved something of a problem in moving the opera to its ultimate conclusion, which is firmly fantastical. That transition has to be well established in Act II. Platt felt that COT's staging of this act, under James Robinson's direction, accomplished that much more smoothly, and I have to agree.

Scene i opens with snow falling over China. The snow plays on the televisions, but the "Chinese Woman" is also upstage right on a platform, dropping handsful of flakes as members of the chorus frolic on the stage and sing of their delight. Half of the TVs are downstage on the floor, and the other half are still overhead, suspended from the grid. In between these, the arced banquet tables are set up to form a serpentine path betwen them. Pat Nixon, in her cheery red coat and neat black fur hat travels along this path as she visits with the simple folk. She is constantly flanked, if not outright mobbed, by the chorus on the ground, some of whom have donned chefs hats, aprons, and other items reflecting their professions. She is also accompanied by Mao's three secretaries, who are charged with "spinning" the visit.

Platt waxed rhapsodic about "Pat's Aria," as they call it in house. Knowing his fondness for it made me more open to enjoying it, which I'm glad about. However, although I was able to appreciate it musically, I wasn't particularly on board with its content. She sings that she is a simple woman, not concerned with trivialities, who treats "everyday like Christmas." It hearkens back to the beginning of Act I, scene iii, musically. But whereas there she genuinely seemed to be trying to express her hopes (however indirectly) for America, for China, and for the historic visit, here she simply ruminates on the prefabricated middle American dream.

I guess I felt like Adams was trying for an emotional connection between Pat, the former poor farm girl, and the peasants. For me, though, it falls somewhat flat. After all, she is sleek and neat, physically above the rabble. That much, I suppose you could blame on the staging, but I think the way Robinson lays out Act II is one of only a handful of possible ways to stage when I remember that this is where the fantastical elements start to be incorporated. However, the opera also indicates (in the libretto, I believe) that the players should include a prototypical nuclear family that appear with TV trays in Act I, scene i, watching the historic meeting on the tarmac. I know they appear again, but I'm having trouble recalling the timing of it. (That's a shame, because they're again huddled before the warm glow of the television, eating Chinese out of take-out cartons.) And ultimately, Pat's song continually places an American gloss on everything she experiences among the Chinese. It's rather like someone trapped for 45 minutes in the elevator at Saks saying they understand the Japanese experience in internment camps.

Still, I enjoyed it very much musically and I really did love the staging. The best part---the absolute union of the music and staging---had to be the pigs. So, remember, Pat remains physically above the peasantry, standing on the tables as the chorus members reach up to her, handing her a "one of a kind" glass elephant (the symbol of our party!) that can be "produced by the thousands. As she moves further stage left, they are now in the countryside and nothing says countryside more than a dozen fat, pink pigs mounted on red poles. The chorus runs in with the pigs (which swarm around her, above peasant level), singing "Pigs! Pigs! Pigs! Pigs! Pigs!" for a good 20 bars. It was awesome.

The scene ends with Pat at the Ming tombs, which are represented by a handful of apparently guilded buildings, again mounted on the poles. This brings Pat's aria around to ruminating on mortality and immortality. It also somewhat redeems the content of the scene emotionally as her reflections on America are more serious, bittersweet, and tinged with homesickness. So even though she's literally stepping on the peasants (male chorus members bridge the gap between the tables and tv tops with their hands) as she sings, it seems that in her private moments, she's not so sure where she, Dick, and the country will wind up, or even if they're going in the right direction.

She is so turned inward, that the shift to scene ii works particularly well. Here, the President and First Lady are attending a performance of a ballet/opera written by Madame Mao. They sit in the center of the first row of seats (the "audience" is placed upstage left) with footlights separating them from the downstage area. Immediately behind them, the secretaries, once again, "spin" the elements of the performance for their benefit. And behind the secretaries, a dozen or so chorus members, now dressed as school children, stand at attention. To Nixon's left is Chou En-lai, and to Pat's right is Madame Mao herself. (This is the first time we see her [I think, now I'm wondering why she wasn't at the banquet, but then again, the Chairman isn't at the performance], and I admit that I was confused as to her identity for a good long while.)

The performance centers on a peasant girl who has been captured by an evil feudal lord. And the evil lord happens to be played by the guy playing Kissinger (Seriously. Pat gets a sotto voce line to Dick "Doesn't he look like You Know Who?) in a ridiculous fu-man-chu 'stache, strutting around with a whip. For whipping. The girl's sisters try to rescue her and the evil feudal lord sets his three minions on her. There is a great deal of dancing, but the three are apprehended and the girl is sentenced by the lord to be whipped to death.

Throughout the performance, Pat has grown more and more agitated, despite Dick's assurances that this is simply theater. When the whipping begins, she loses it, leaps the footlights, and breaks into the action. The actor playing the lord is befuddled, but orders them to continue. The dancers try to pick up again, but the performance is jerky, uncertain, and devoid of its previous rhythm. She's eventually led back to her seat and the performance continues, only to see her rushing on to the stage again when the girl lies dead downstage. The "Chinese Woman" also moves to the body and hands Pat a cloth, which she uses to dab ineffectually at the girl's back.

From here, the setting of the opera shifts from the distant (preimperial) feudal past to a pro-Maoist allegory. The classic propaganda image of the head of Mao, surrounded by rays of red sun is projected on to the back wall. The sisters reemerge in over-the-top, semifetishized PLA uniforms (searingly bright blue and red, tight breeches) and launch into a rifle-twirling routine (one of them dropped hers at some point, but recovered with admirable alacrity). Their dancing not only appears to revive their sister, it banishes the male dancers (each dressed as a caricature from China's pre-Communist past) and turns one into a tall, strapping young man clad in a pure red version of the PLA uniform. At some point Dick leaves the seats and joins Pat. They look on in confusion and horror as the music and dance reach a fevered pitch.

Pat and Dick look as thought they might interfere again, Madame Mao leaps to her feet and enters the opera on oh-my-fucking-god-I-have-no-idea-what-note-that-is, but it makes the Queen of the Night's entrance sound like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. If anyone was wondering who might want to spank coluratura sopranos like the bad, bad donkeys they are more than Mozart? It's John Adams. Madame Mao (here played by a woman who MIGHT be 5 feet tall) seizes control of the scene by sheer force of music and will. Challenging does not begin to describe both the vocal and musical lines here, but both were astounding. At the end of Act I, the crowd burst into enthusiastic applause, pulled into the slightly drunk energy of the party scene. At the end of Act II, I think we were all stunned by the ferocity, both of the role and of the performance.

By Act III, things have shifted completely into fantasy. A half-height scrim painted with a stereotypical (American's eye view) Chinese nature image is flown in at the depth of the proscenium. Six squares of light are projected on the apron in front of the scrim, and one by one, the six main players enter and take their places within one of them. Kissinger arrives first with his briefcase and takes the rightmost square. The Chairman shuffles in and takes his station next to him. Nixon enters, claiming the centermost square and Pat follows him to hers, just right of him. Madame Mao slips in next to Pat, and Chou En-lai is stage left.

When everyone has arrived, the televisions visible behind the scrim switch on, featuring a garish, technicolor parody of the nature scene on their screens. The music, in turn, shifts into a parody of the dance music from the first night, and everyone begins their own, twisted version of busting a move. Kissinger, with his days at a Chippendales having served him well, incorporates his briefcase into the routine. Mao shifts his weight from foot-to-foot arthritically. Dick does a junior-high-school dance foxtrot (that's actually quite sweet, especially given where things go with him in Act III). Pat channels Kitty from That 70s Show, and Madame Mao does a resentful, too-militant-for-school fingersnap. I have little memory of Chou En-lai's dance, sadly. Maybe he has no sexy dance.

As Dick and Pat come together in the dark junction between their lights to dance, the music takes us back beyond the first night parties to their earlier relationship. The others turn their backs, giving them their privacy. However, Madame Mao can only countenance this for so long, before she tells the audience to "hit it boys" and suggests to Mao that they show them how this is done.

The scrim is flown away, and the lights change, illuminating a harsh square in front of each of six televisions that are staggered up and downstage of one another. Kissinger's televsion is quite far upstage right and Madame Mao moves to the position just downstage right of her husband. Nixon is about dead center, Chou En-lai is down left of him, and Pat's is extreme downstage left.

Each of their televisions bears a different image, some static, others shifting. Madame Mao's literally morphs among images of Chinese women, one of which may be her in her Hollywood days, and the more modern of which may actually be Ziyi Zang. Mao's image is a static pen and ink mountain scene (again, pretty stereotypical American's eye fare). Nixon's television shows a shot of him as a serviceman in WWII (where he flipped illicit burgers at a refueling station for fighter pilots); for the most part, this is a static image, although later, a camera pans and zooms over it. Chou En-lais cycles through images of everyday peasant life, and on a similar note, Pat's flickers through images of their life as the First Family. But the best part is Kissinger's, which has nothing but grayscale static.

Throughout the rest of the act, Mao and his Madame revisit their past, jaded and not always with fond feeling. Madame Mao has her turn as a shiny vocal accessory, working her way through a series of pointedly feminine cadenzas and flourishes as she reenacts the days when she still charmed him. In the American relationship, the focus shifts back to Nixon. Shell shocked, exhausted, he tells Pat stories of his time in the Pacific. Pat listens fondly, but with a very human undertone of having heard everything umpteen times before. Kissinger goes through his briefcase and nods off by turns. Chou En-lai hits the ground of the present painfully and with great resonance.

Eventually, the conversations and ruminations wear themselves out. The "Chinese Woman" brings each player a stack of clean, creased nightclothes and places them on top of each television. As their thoughts and vocal lines wind down, they each change on stage. Kissinger falls asleep over his folder, sitting on the televison. One by one, the others steal a final word or caress, then turn to face the TV. Chou En-lai, too seized by doubt and regret to sleep, realizes that his ideas may very well die with him, as he has dedicated his entire life to the vision of a China that may have been the worst mistake in its history. Among the last of his lines one finds a beautiful bit of poetry that is quite typically sandwiched in amongst the allusions and wordplay: "Just before dawn the birds begin,/ The warblers who prefer the dark,/ The cage-birds answering: To work!/ Outside the room the chill of grace/ Lies heavy on the morning grass."

I've kind of hit a few performances as I went along, but is that ever enough for Captain Verbosity? As much as Orth's voice was not always audible, when I could here him, it was pleasant, technically on the mark, and sufficiently emotive. Duffin, as Mao, had few vocal problems to match the uneven physicality. He really shone in Act III with his Madame. As far as Kissinger went, Kyle Albertson was a wonderful buffo character who was able to bring vocal depth to the scene when appropriate. I feel like he's capable of a lot more than is showcased in this role. Any issues with him lie pretty squarely with Adams' uneven attention to characters. Chen Ye Yuan, as Chou En-lai, was amazing. His voice is pure and powerful, and he knows how to use it as an actor. I would love to see more of him and to receive his newsletter.

Of the minor players, the chorus was good for the most part, but there was a glaring fuck up in the opening number that made me gasp. (Basically 6 or 7 singers at stage left were unclear on their measure and ended "grace' about three beats after the rest of the chorus---the kind of error I expect on the Oscars, but whatever problems Lyric has [and they've got them], one doesn't really see that kind of thing there.) Also, during the opening number, there was a single female chorus member who participated in the choreography, but never sang a note. If this was purposeful, its import passed me by. Mao's three secretaries seemed more important in the synopsis than they played out in this production. I'm unsure of where to place the blame for that, though. Certainly they were physically well conceived, and even vocally they seemed to match well, but I felt there was more potential than was realized.

As for our first ladies. Both Maria Kanyova (Pat Nixon) and Kathleen Kim (Madame Mao) are Lyric alum, and I've seen both perform. At least I think I've seen Kanyova as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly. I have definitely seen Kim in minor roles as recently as this year. Kanyova's Pat Nixon was unassailable vocally, and for the most part her acting was ejoyable and made sense. However, her Pat was ultimately a shallow one. As much as I enjoyed Act II being all about the ladies (an unexpected move, frankly, and one that is not exactly dear to opera), I wondered if an actress with greater presence and depth might not have redeemed the "Beef! It's what's for dinner!" undertones of her elongated aria.

About Kathleen Kim, I have a much less reserved, qualified opinion to express. Go. Find her. See her. To misquote , she sang a smoking hole in the stage. My only fear is that she will kill herself with this role before she has the chance to gain the recognition that she deserves. In Act II, she seriously scared the crap out of me. All 98 lbs of her. In Act III as she chased after Mao's affection, she was heart breaking. If Lyric doesn't use her more in the future, I shall be very cross.

As you might have gathered, I enoyed both the opera itself and the production, but it wasn't perfect. As I've noted along the way, there are certain types of mistakes that I can't imagine seeing at Lyric. There was also a lack of polish in some respects that's born of not having contributors being extruded from every orifice. I'm not generally too hard on that, being the white trash theatre queen myself, but there were corners cut that detracted unnecessarily from the production. I also wish I could have seen the images on the televisions more clearly (or, alternatively, a reiterate my wish for real-life TiVo that does not involve Adam Sandler in any way), because I get the feeling that a lot of care went into the selections of clips for them. On the underside of that though, is the fact that if I with my pretty posh seats couldn't see too clearly, it's not really appropriate to use them as shorthand. Furthermore, there was some pretty massive interference and/or monitor failure on some of them for the first two acts that further compromised the extent to which they could be depended upon for meaning.

For Adams' part, I think there was more in his head that didn't make it explicitly enough into the opera. Kissinger is a great character, but there's little written for him (in Act III, in particular, his presence is kind of a WTF?). In the theme of couples that rises to the level of text in Act III, Kissinger becomes the photo negative of Chou En-lai, for whom he apparently had great respect. I know that because the adept lecturer/conductor told me so, but I'm not sure that comes across in the opera, as Chou En-lai is underused as well (a real crime, given the talented Chen Ye Yuan in this production). Even Madame Mao is problematic, given her sudden, searing introduction in Act II. I know that characterization is a problem in most operas as major players come on in whirl of activity, then disappear for an act and a half, but given the striking personalities, that flaw is even more evident and irksome in this.

But I hate to end on a negative note, because I really had an electrifying time watching this, despite the permanent damage to my brain through overuse for two days. I am resolved to intake both more Adams and more Chicago Opera Theater productions at my earliest convenience and at every opportunity.

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