SAN FRANCISCO — A production here of John Adams' "Nixon in China" begins with a goose-bump gorgeous projection on a scrim in front of the stage of Air Force One gracefully gliding into Beijing through slate gray clouds on a winter's day. Lawrence Renes, a Dutch conductor in his early 40s making his San Francisco Opera debut, creates a viscerally silky sound from Adams' brilliantly atmospheric orchestral prologue.
The rest of Michael Cavanagh's production, a product of Vancouver Opera, may not entirely live up to this beginning, but the specialness of the moment is significant. The opera's opening anticipates President Nixon's historic opening of our relationship with the People's Republic of China after a quarter century of mutual cold-war suspicion. And at the War Memorial Opera House the prologue has an additional quarter-century consequence.
Twenty five years and one month ago at the Herbst Theatre, next door to the opera house, Adams' "Nixon" score received its first public reading. The singers stood at music stands, accompanied by two pianos and synthesizer. That was enough to reveal that "Nixon" heralded a meaningful new chapter in American opera.
Bizarrely, though, the preview sealed opera's Bay Area fate for the next 25 years. No matter that Adams was (and still is) a local, the late Terry McEwen, then head of San Francisco Opera and no fan of Minimalism, announced that the company would produce "Nixon" "over my dead body." It's finally happened.
The general director of San Francisco Opera is now David Gockley, who commissioned "Nixon" for Houston Grand Opera when he ran the Texas company. The quintessentially American and widely acclaimed opera has since been seen all over the country and around the world. But only this month is "Nixon" receiving its belated San Francisco Opera premiere as part of the company's summer season, which also includes new productions of Verdi's "Attila" and Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
The performance I saw Friday night was the fourth of seven (the last is July 3), and it was both exhilarating and disappointing. The cast proved capable. Renes' conducting gave Adams' magnetic score an electrifying rhythmic punch and scintillating clarity, although his slow tempos could dull the action. Occasionally the production illuminated Goodman's insightful and lyrical libretto, probed into the deep meaning of world events and, most important of all, revealed the tantalizing — and tormented — inner workings of the men and women behind them.
And then there was the stupid stuff. When the projection designer Sean Nieuwenhuis wasn't creating imaginative atmospherics, he displayed American flags flapping in the wind, as if applying for a job at one of this summer's political conventions. Exaggerated makeup and wigs turned characters into caricatures. A series of portraits, morphing Nixon into Mao wound up with something resembling a Photoshopped Jack Benny.
Though he's a Chinese artist, Wen Wei Wang was responsible for the staid choreography of the opera's "Red Detachment of Women" parody. The silly dances made for Richard and Pat Nixon, Mao, Chiang Ch'ing and, most egregious of all, Henry Kissinger should not have been allowed by the TSA to cross the border from Canada to the U.S.
Still, this was "Nixon in China." Once one got past Brian Mulligan's prosthetic Nixon schnozzle and his jokey victory gestures, it became possible to discover a curious Nixon charisma and pathos in the American baritone's virile performance. Maria Kanyova had a Pat wig to overcome and much too slow tempos her aria, "This is prophetic!" but she was smart Pat.
Simon O'Neill struggled with this staging's requirements for a woman Mao, but there was no stopping Korean Hye Jung Lee who was a firecracker Chiang Ch'ing (Madame Mao). And Chen-Ye Yuan maintained throughout Chou En-lai's touching eloquence.
The opera's one gross character is Kissinger, but Patrick Carfizzi had to lay it on way too thick. Goodman and Adams dismiss the secretary of State in the last act by sending him to the toilet. Cavanagh brought him back to wander the stage like a zombie.
That last scene — after Nixon's great arrival, the invigorating banquet scene, Pat's tour of the countryside, the "Red Detachment" — comes the final detachment of Dick, Pat, Mao and his wife. Here against distracting deconstructed sets, it seemed like everyone had run out of ideas on stage but not steam. The singing was moving.
There are better "Nixon" productions to have chosen from. Sellars' original Houston staging is still vital, as the Metropolitan Opera proved last year. Last spring, a strikingly elegant new production by the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng was mounted by the Théatre du Chatelet in Paris (and can be viewed on the venue's website). But at least San Francisco at last knows "Nixon."