Opera review: ‘Nixon in China’ at Long Beach Opera

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Long Beach Opera productions in recent years have been modest. Old-timers remember regular offerings at the 3,000-seat downtown Terrace Theater. But plagued with budget problems, LBO — while ever innovative — retrenched. It turned to chamber operas or staged recitals in small or offbeat venues.

Not so this weekend. The Long Beach company came back to the Terrace on Saturday with a new production of John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” using more than 100 participants, including an orchestra, a chorus, ballet dancers and a sextet of leather-lunged soloists.

And its new production did Adams proud.

A collaboration among Adams, librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars, “Nixon” re-imagined the president’s historic five-day visit to China in 1972, which began normalizing relations between the countries.

The work received its premiere in 1987 at Houston Grand Opera, then traveled to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (both of which co-commissioned it with Houston). The opera reached Los Angeles in 1990 and hasn’t been seen locally since.


If anyone wants a simple symbol of the difference between the original and the new production, look at backdrop portraits of Mao Tse-tung in each. In Sellars’ original, it was an iconic, realistic one. In the new production by Peter Pawlik, with set designer Wilhelm Holzbauer, it’s one of Andy Warhol’s tinted silk-screen prints of the identical picture.

The same, in short, but different: a little more irreverent, a little more fantastic, a little more hallucinatory.
Still, Pawlik followed Goodman’s original scenario, restoring the final scene to the banquet room (Sellars had moved it to a communal bedroom). For the meeting between Nixon and Chairman Mao, he put the main figures in oversized, stuffed chairs, which made Mao and Nixon look like children, even in their confrontational moments.

He made Pat Nixon’s visits to a glass factory, pig farm and schoolroom delightful, especially with the oinking chorus and the cardboard, cut-out figures of children manipulated by a party factotum.
For all its innovations, Adams’ opera sustains vocal conventions going back to the baroque era. Each principal singer dominates a scene with a display aria that often follows a traditional three-part structure of assertion, reflection and revitalization.

In Long Beach, the singers were miked, a necessity given the volume of the amplified orchestra (overly loud in the first half but more tempered in the second), but it also robbed them of introspective possibilities.

The text was projected above the stage, which was helpful, given Goodman’s allusive though sometimes opaque libretto.

In luxury casting, John Duykers reprised his original role as Chairman Mao, negotiating Adams’ flights into the stratosphere with masterly ease. Dramatically, he was allowed more physical vigor than in the Sellars production, where he first appeared halting and assisted onstage by his three female secretaries, originally nicknamed the Maoettes.

Michael Chioldi made a strong, even sympathetic Nixon, although he had to telegraph the character’s V for Victory finger waves a bit too often.

As Pat Nixon, Suzan Hanson sang with strength and acted the role with appealing sympathy.
Ani Maldjian brought demonic power to the role of Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing, seizing control of the stage with her virtuosic, self-identifying, vaunting aria.

Kyle Albertson did what he could with the work’s unattractive portrayal of Henry Kissinger (and the villain in “The Red Detachment of Women” ballet), although in this production he got to return to the stage after his visit to the bathroom. (In the original, Kissinger simply disappeared.)

Roberto Gomez made a properly weary and aged Chou En-lai, who gets the final poetic and philosophical words in the opera, a vision of nature’s restorative, recurring cycle.

Ariel Pisturino, Leslie Anne Cook and Peabody Southwell sang the roles of Mao’s secretaries securely.
Jenny Weston provided respectable choreography for “The Red Detachment of Women” ballet, drawing on strong dancers from David Wilcox’s Long Beach Ballet.

Presiding in the pit with authority and sympathy was conductor and company general director Andreas Mitisek.

Dan Weingarten was the lighting designer. Jörg Gaulocher designed the costumes. Bob Christian was the sound designer. Henry Venanzi was the chorus master.

-- Chris Pasles

‘Nixon in China,’ Long Beach Opera, Terrace Theater, Long Beach, 4 p.m. Sunday. $45 to $95. (562) 432-5934 or 3 hours, 30 minutes.


Critic’s Notebook: ‘Nixon in China’ is neglected no longer