35 Years On, Adams’ ‘Nixon In China’ Gets New Looks In Europe

A scene from the Teatro Real production of ‘Nixon in China’ (Courtesy of the Teatro Royal)

PERSPECTIVE — Much like the characters it depicts, Nixon in China has seen its stock repeatedly rise and fall. Though polarizing at its 1987 Houston premiere (held in conjunction with an annual meeting of the Music Critics Association, no less), where views ranged from “an operatic triumph of grave and thought-provoking beauty” (John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune) to “hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory” (Donal Henahan, The New York Times), John Adams and Alice Goodman’s debut stage work reached the Metropolitan Opera in 2011 generally “hailed as a classic” (Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times).

In between, though, after its initial presentations among its co-commissioners in the United States and Europe, the opera’s presence was pretty much limited to the Nonesuch recording. “Whatever happened to Nixon in China?” Alex Ross pondered in The New York Times nearly a decade after its premiere.

Sarah Tynan, center, as Pat Nixon in the Teatro Real production

As we near the end of the 2022-23 season, the 35th anniversary of the opera, and 50 years after the fateful meetings it portrays, Ross’ question is again particularly apt. Audiences would search in vain to find Nixon onstage in either the U.S. or especially China, where not even its title can be mentioned in public. Europe, though, has proved to be a different story entirely.

From Feb. 26 in Dortmund to July 7 in Hannover, no fewer than five separate and unrelated productions — four of them new this season — have been scheduled in France, Germany, and Spain. I managed to see the final performance of Valentina Carrasco’s production on April 16 at the Opéra National de Paris (which opened during the run of Martin Berger’s production in Dortmund), then flew to Madrid the next day to catch the opening night of John Fulljames’ staging at Teatro Real.

In his Times piece, Ross had asked two questions that, for completely different reasons, still resonate today. Is the public too politically polarized to appreciate this story? And is the entire genre of “CNN opera” destined to be as ephemeral as CNN itself? The divisiveness Ross had in mind concerned America’s attitudes about Nixon after the former president’s death and Oliver Stone’s then-recent film Nixon. Today, polarization comes from a different direction: Is a true-life account of leaders from two antagonistic countries finding common ground now too difficult to comprehend?

Carrasco’s production (her first for the Paris Opera) was the most star-studded of the season’s Nixons, with Thomas Hampson and Renée Fleming making their role debuts as Richard and Pat Nixon and Paris Opera music director Gustavo Dudamel in the pit. Although Carles Berga and Peter van Praet’s visual designs consciously played down the newsy imagery, Carrasco still found CNN a factor to reckon with.

In between opening night on March 25 and the closing on April 16, French President Emmanuel Macron met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and came away declaring that European leaders must distance themselves from U.S. policy regarding China. Earlier in the run, a few passing mentions of France in the libretto and a disparaging reference to former President de Gaulle would probably have drawn a few smiles. In light of Macron’s controversial remarks, they seemed a timely retort. (For the record, France under de Gaulle had established diplomatic ties with China in 1964, well before the U.S., but nobody really cared.)  

Carrasco’s strengths lay in scraping away the last vestiges of Peter Sellars’ original vision. Where Sellars used familiar media images from the 1972 talks as a point of departure, letting Goodman’s text fill the narrative gaps and Adams’ music raise the stakes to metaphorical dimensions, Carrasco starts right in with metaphor. Eagles and dragons are in constant opposition, Sellars’ famous landing of Air Force One replaced by a giant eagle; “ping-pong diplomacy” is everywhere apparent, with tennis tables replacing not only the runway but also the giant banquet table in Act I and the marital beds in Act III.

Borja Quiza as Henry Kissinger and Leigh Melrose as Nixon in Madrid

Underneath the book-lined room where Nixon and Mao meet, we see the basement where those books are being systematically burned and their authors tortured. Excerpts from The Red Detachment of Women ballet in Act II, originally deconstructed by Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris as an extended critique of U.S.-Asian policy, now has the pre-Communist atrocities depicted in the ballet framed with projections of Communist atrocities during the Cultural Revolution. Between Acts II and III, a 10-minute excerpt from the 1979 documentary film From Mao to Mozart features Chinese musicians recounting their humiliation and physical torture in the period leading up to Nixon’s actual visit. Macron’s statements notwithstanding, Carrasco made her position on China quite clear.

The U.S. hardly escapes unscathed, however. As Premier Chou Enlai (Xiaoming Zhang) thoughtfully reflects, “How much of what we did was good?” projected images variously recall Nixon’s resignation, Civil Rights protests, and the Rodney King beating in one corner, the tanks in Tiananmen Square, the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, and China’s “white-paper” protests in the other.

Fulljames’ production in Madrid (having appeared in Denmark in 2019 and Scotland in 2020) shares a few superficial traits with Carrasco’s, but its effect is entirely different. Opening his version in a library, with people seemingly reconstructing the story from historical records, Fulljames also uses projections, not least archival footage of the real people being depicted onstage (the Presidential airplane also makes a more affordable landing onscreen). Less dreamy and more practical, Fulljames takes fewer chances, relying more on standard operatic conventions. (Mao and his wife would never have been caught dead wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sexy lingerie, as they did in Paris.) As a result, his approach is more consistent, if less probing and provocative.

Where Madrid fully surpassed Paris, however, was in the musical performance. Within the Bastille’s uneven acoustics, not even Mark Grey’s sound design could ensure that the singers were consistently understood. Dudamel, favoring texture at the expense of rhythm, delivered long lyrical lines without the crisp articulation needed to drive them forward. Hampson soon transcended a rocky start, his initial scene lying uncomfortably low in his vocal range. Fleming was in fine form in Act II, when she essentially had the stage to herself save for a giant dragon. Kathleen Kim’s Chiang Ching, however, sang her potentially showstopping aria (“I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung”) too far upstage to make much impact. 

By contrast, Cameron Crosby’s sound design at Teatro Real was superbly balanced (though the space itself was better to begin with). Much like Fulljames’ staging, the musical bar was set a notch lower, ensuring a higher rate of success. The driving force in that regard was conductor Olivia Lee-Gunderman, a last-minute replacement for Teatro Real music director Ivor Bolton. Where Dudamel had focused heavily on lyricism, Lee-Gunderman concentrated almost exclusively on rhythmic clarity and let the line take care of itself.

Chairman Mao (John Matthew Myers) and the ‘Maoettes’ in ‘Nixon in China’ at Opéra-Bastille in Paris (Photo by Christophe Pele)

Her approach shaped nearly every element of the performance, both musically and dramatically. Where Hampson’s Nixon had been a bit bumbly, though he carried himself with self-reflective dignity, Leigh Melrose approached the role with an inner jerkiness that veered between occasional tugs of self-doubt and bouncy all-American optimism. Alfred Kim elevated Mao Tse-Tung into a heldentenor of quasi-Wagnerian proportions. Watching Melrose’s Nixon engage with Kim’s Mao was like seeing Figaro negotiate with Siegfried.

So too did Lee-Gunderman’s rhythmic prowess aid in one of the opera’s less-discussed traits: its humor. In Paris, whether from lack of linguistic comprehension or a deeper disbelief that opera could actually be funny, much of the opera’s lighthearted moments failed to register. In Spain, by contrast, the text landed with such brisk precision that my seating section was often consumed by appropriate chuckles.

The audience profiles also notably varied. In Paris, several musical luminaries were conspicuously in attendance (Martha Argerich was seated on the aisle a couple of rows behind me). In Madrid, where the opera was making its national premiere, my Spanish companion spotted a number of cabinet ministers, newspaper publishers, and members of parliament.

We probably shouldn’t draw too many real-world conclusions from the opera stage, particularly when the story at hand seems as impossibly distant from our time as U.S. and Chinese leaders working together. But anyone who has trouble grasping how European countries could struggle so hard to form a unified China policy need look no further than Adams’ score.