‘Nixon’ Returns To Houston As Trump Enters Washington

Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi, at right, plays a cartoony Henry Kissinger in James Robinson’s 2004 production of
‘Nixon in China’ at Houston Grand Opera. (Production photos by Lynn Lane)
By William Albright

HOUSTON — It was pure coincidence, not prescience or political point-making, that produced the convergence of two controversial American presidents on Jan. 20. At noon that day, Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, and that night Houston Grand Opera revived John Adams’ Nixon in China.

Presidential couple: Scott Hendricks, Andriana Churchman.

Premiered here in Oct. 1987, Adams’s first opera (with a libretto by British poet Alice Goodman) was inspired by the historic 1972 visit to China by America’s 37th chief executive. HGO’s revival didn’t revive the company’s original Peter Sellars-directed production, with sets by Adrianne Lobel, costumes by Dunya Ramicova, lighting by James F. Ingalls, and choreography by Mark Morris. The 30th-anniversary staging, seen Jan. 22 in Wortham Theater Center’s Brown Theater, featured the new production created for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2004 by James Robinson (director), Allen Moyer (sets), James Schuette (costumes), Paul Palazzo (lighting), Seán Curran (choreography), and Wendall K. Harrington (projections).

That last credit suggests just how different the new, pared-down, stylized version is. One of the most memorable images in the 1987 staging was the nose-only onstage arrival in Peking of Air Force One. The most striking visual element of Robinson’s mounting is a dozen 1970s-style television consoles, half of them suspended in mid-air and the other half large stage props. Here, the arrival becomes a shot of Air Force One in flight, and the Nixons simply descend a set of stairs protruding from the stage-right wing. Later, the screens show everything from newscast footage and images of Chairman Mao to a “Made in China” barcode and 8 mm home movies filmed by the delegation that accompanied Tricky Dick to the country that the reconstructed Cold Warrior had long considered a threat to America and the entire world.

With the stage drenched in red, ‘Nixon’ features choreography by Sean Curran.

Before the music began, a lone, straw-hatted peasant and the many blue-uniformed soldiers awaiting Air Force One slowly exercised tai-chi style and one by one moved, from the lip of the stage to the back, a raft of waist-high statues like the first emperor of China’s famed Terracotta Army. Set designer Moyer and lighting designer Palazzo drenched the stage in red (Red China, Mao’s Little Red Book, get it?) right down to Pat Nixon’s dress and topcoat, the rug-size Red Squares on the stage floor in which characters often clustered to sing, the choristers’ socks, and Nixon’s dressing gown in the poignantly memory-driven nitey-nite pajama-party final scene. Choreographer Curran provided the Peking Opera-style ballet performed for the visiting dignitaries, the bustling for the dancing waiters at a state banquet, and the close-order drills executed by choristers and dancers.

Adams’ music is minimalist in style (if not always in moment-to-moment duration; the three-act, 2½-hour opera does go on a bit at times), but his orchestration is maximalist. Seemingly every possible orchestral color, texture, and effect is on display here, and his signature driving, complex rhythms and ability to create webs, clouds, washes, and veritable tsunamis of sound are still impressive 30 years on. Conductor Robert Spano, his left hand tirelessly throwing cues to everybody onstage, was in full command of everything, and the HGO orchestra and chorus performed their tricky duties with admirable precision.

The Nixons with Mao Tse-tung (Chad Shelton) and Madame Mao (Tracy Dahl).

Even miked per the composer’s wishes, the singers were hard pressed to compete with Spano’s full-throated music-making, but they sang strongly (their vocal lines frequently invading upper registers and calling for some notes in falsetto) and impersonated their historical characters deftly.

Three former HGO Studio members played key roles. Scott Hendricks fielded a robust baritone as Nixon; as Mao Tse-tung, Chad Shelton potently dispatched a role as punishingly high-lying as Tannhäuser or Bacchus; and Chen-Ye Yuan, the Chou En-Lai in Saint Louis in 2004, endowed the philosophical premier with a warm if rather throaty baritone. Andriana Chuchman made a solid HGO and role debut as Pat Nixon, her soprano brightly appealing. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi sang potently as Henry Kissinger and handled the role’s cartoonish aspects exuberantly, and Tracy Dahl delivered Madame Mao’s sometimes ferocious, sometimes dreamy lines with bright soprano tone (she took the same role in Saint Louis).

The audience gave the performance a reception worthy of a political rally. And if they craved even more Adams, they can hear the Houston Symphony perform the composer’s Doctor Atomic Symphony Jan. 29 and his Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra Feb. 23-26 featuring the orchestra member who inspired it, native Houstonian Timothy McAllister — both scheduled in honor of Adams’ 70th birthday.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.