Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

The 2019 Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance

This year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance offered a veritable operatic smörgåsbord, presenting sizable excerpts from operas ranging from Gluck to Saint-Saëns, from Mozart to Debussy, by way of some Italian masterpieces, courtesy of Rossini and Verdi.

Cilea's L'arlesiana at Opera Holland Park

In a rank order of suicidal depressives, Federico - the Provençal peasant besotted with ‘the woman from Arles’, L’arlesiana, who yearns to break free from his mother’s claustrophobic grasp, who seeks solace from betrayal and disillusionment in the arms of a patient childhood sweetheart, but who is ultimately broken by deluded dreams and unrequited passion - would surely give many a Thomas Hardy protagonist a run for their money.

Prom 1: Karina Canellakis makes history on the opening night of the Proms 2019

The young American conductor Karina Canellakis made history as the first woman to conduct the First Night of the Proms last night (19 July 2019) as she conducted the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall with soloists Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Ladislav Elgr (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass) and Peter Holder (organ) in Zosha Di Castri's Long is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (the world premiere of a BBC commission), Antonin Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.

Barbe & Doucet's new production of Die Zauberflöte at Glyndebourne

No one would pretend that Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte would go down well with the #MeToo generation. Or with first, second or third wave feminists for that matter.

Three Chamber Operas at the Aix Festival

Along with the celestial Mozart Requiem, a doomed Tosca and a gloriously witty Mahagonny the Aix Festival’s new artistic director Pierre Audi regaled us with three chamber operas — the premiere of a brilliant Les Mille Endormis, the technically playful Blank Out (on a turgid subject), and a heavy-duty Jakob Lenz.

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du régiment returns to Covent Garden

French soprano Sabine Devieilhe seems to find feisty adolescence a neat fit. I first encountered her when she assumed the role of a pill-popping nightclubbing ‘Beauty’ - raced from ecstasy-induced wonder to emergency ward - when I reviewed the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Aix

Make no mistake, this is about you! Jim laid-out dead on the stage floor, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his very loud orchestra (London’s Philharmonia) to an abrupt halt. Black out. The maestro then turned his spotlighted face to confront us and he held his stare. There was no mistake, the music was about us.

Mozart's Travels: Classical Opera and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall

There was a full house at Wigmore Hall for Classical Opera’s/The Mozartists’ final concert of the 2018-19 season: a musical paysage which chartered, largely chronologically, Mozart’s youthful travels from London to The Hague, on to Paris, then Rome, concluding - following stop-overs in European cultural cities such as Munich and Vienna - with an arrival at his final destination, Prague.

Tosca in Aix

From the sublime — the Mozart Requiem — to the ridiculous, namely stage director Christophe Honoré's Tosca. A ridiculous waste of operatic resources.

A terrific, and terrifying, The Turn of the Screw at Garsington

One might describe Christopher Oram’s set for Louisa Muller’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Garsington as ‘shabby chic’ … if it wasn’t so sinister.

Mozart Requiem in Aix

Pierre Audi, now the directeur général of the Festival d’Aix as well as the artistic director of New York City’s Park Avenue Armory opens a new era for this distinguished opera festival in the south of France with a new work by the Festival’s signature composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A Rachmaninov Drama at Middle Temple Hall

It is Rachmaninov’s major works for orchestra - the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances - alongside the All-Night Vespers and the music for solo piano, which have earned the composer a permanent place in the concert repertoire today.

Fun, Frothy, and Frivolous: L’elisir d’amore at Las Vegas

There are a dizzying array of choices for music entertainment in Las Vegas ranging from Celine Dion and Cher to Paul McCartney and Aerosmith. Admittedly, these performers are a far cry from opera, but the point is that Las Vegas residents have many options when it comes to live music.

McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro returns to the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has been a remarkable success since it debuted in 2006. Set with the Count of Almaviva's fearfully grand household in 1830, McVicar's trick is to surround the principals by servants in a supra-naturalistic production which emphasises how privacy is at a premium.

The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall

The presence of a large cast of ‘animals’ in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can encourage directors and designers to create costume-confections ranging from Disney-esque schmaltz to grim naturalism.

Barbe-Bleue in Lyon

Stage director Laurent Pelly is famed for his Offenbach stagings, above all others his masterful rendering of Les Contes d’Hoffmann as a nightmare. Mr. Pelly has staged eleven of Offenbach’s ninety-nine operettas over the years (coincidently this production of Barbe-Bleue is Mr. Pelly’s ninety-eighth opera staging).

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival has adopted a successful and sophisticated operatic programming strategy, whereby the annual opera alternates between a standard warhorse and a less known, more challenging work. Last year Princeton presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year the choice is Nixon in China by modern American composer John Adams, which opened before a nearly full house of appreciative listeners.

Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Grange Park Opera

When Engelbert Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto to Hansel and Gretel the idea of a poor family living in a hut near the woods, on the bread-line, would have had an element of realism to it despite the sentimental layers which Wette adds to the tale.

Handel’s Belshazzar at The Grange Festival

What a treat to see members of The Sixteen letting their hair down. This was no strait-laced post-concert knees-up, but a full on, drunken orgy at the court of the most hedonistic ruler in the Old Testament.

Don Giovanni in Paris

A brutalist Don Giovanni at the Palais Garnier, Belgian set designer Jan Versweyveld installed three huge, a vista raw cement towers that overwhelmed the Opéra Garnier’s Second Empire opulence. The eight principals faced off in a battle royale instigated by stage director Ivo van Hove. Conductor Philippe Jordan thrust the Mozart score into the depths of expressionistic conflict.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

The Nixons and Kissinger [Photo courtesy of The Princeton Festival]
29 Jun 2019

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival has adopted a successful and sophisticated operatic programming strategy, whereby the annual opera alternates between a standard warhorse and a less known, more challenging work. Last year Princeton presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year the choice is Nixon in China by modern American composer John Adams, which opened before a nearly full house of appreciative listeners.

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: The Nixons and Kissinger

Photos courtesy of The Princeton Festival

 

When it premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 1987, just a decade and a half after the epochal events it portrays, Nixon in China received accolades. Since then, it has secured a modest spot in opera world, with two or three productions a year worldwide – but this understates its musical significance. Over the past three decades, other composers have adopted many of Adams’ innovative techniques, such as basing plots on current events, using romantic harmonies and melodies, quoting popular music, including surrealistic political satire, and amplifying singers.

Poet Alice Goodman did not write the libretto around a conventional plot. Instead, she recounts the ceremonial highlights of President Nixon’s famous visit – his arrival at Beijing Airport, meetings with the Chinese leaders, Pat Nixon’s experiences among the people, a state banquet, and a revolutionary ballet – as a basis for a surreal reflection on the tension between public duty and private life.

NiC001.pngThe Nixons and ensemble

The libretto’s strength lies in a series of introspective monologues in which each character recounts important memories that shape their attitude toward politics. Goodman’s underlying point seems to be that most politicians are childishly self-important. So Madame Mao is a revolutionary fanatic who treats the creation of a perfect society as an aesthetic project. Kissinger is a doddering old fool who responds to Chou En-Lai’s desire for dialogue by asking to go to the toilet. President Nixon is an American provincial who obsesses on World War II. Mao is a cryptic old man muttering platitudes about his boyhood revolutionary achievements. All have lost touch with everyday virtues of family, community and humanity.

The remaining two characters offer a more sympathetic and humanistic alternative. Chou En-Lai’s elegance and sense of the historical moment fuel two memorable arias, one each at the end of the first and third acts. Pat Nixon expresses stereotypical virtues of “home and hearth” through her simple love of children, animals, community and other simple things.

Adams sets this libretto with a distinctive style of orchestral writing. Drawing on the minimalist tradition of Philip Glass and others, the score of Nixon in China rests on hypnotically oscillating block chords and arpeggios punctuated by syncopated notes. The challenge for minimalist music is that it lacks a clear architectural principle that allows music to develop harmonically and melodically over longer timespans. Climaxes are achieved almost entirely by increasing volume or speed. Minimalist music shimmers and even changes, but it does not evolve – in contrast to the music of Schubert, Wagner, Bruckner and other traditional composers who sometimes employed repetitive forms.

NiC004.pngBallet sequence

For Adams, the overall result is atmospheric but static music, more akin to a film score than a classic opera. In most scenes of Nixon in China, that mood is one of slightly mysterious introspection, as if one is seeking to remember something distant and ineffable – a suitable style for moments when characters reminisce. The result can be quite beautiful, as in Pat Nixon’s scena “This is Prophetic,” with its hypnotically undulating alternating between E major and E minor. It can also be exciting for short periods, as in Madame Mao’s robotic revolutionary rhetoric. Yet it rarely sweeps the listener up.

In contrast to previous minimalists, Adams seeks to offset the orchestral stasis by introducing traditional melody in the vocal parts – which he does by adopting a surprising number of traditional bel canto conventions. Act I ends with an ensemble, Act II with a coloratura showpiece, and Act III with a reverie – and the opera even contains a ballet, albeit a surrealistic one reminiscent of a 1950s movie dream sequence. Each major character receives at least one big scena. President Nixon’s opening aria (“News”) follows the fragmented style of the orchestra, but in the second and third acts, the vocal lines become longer and more romantic – and are then often picked up by the orchestra in a manner intermittently reminiscent of Wagner or Puccini. Later in the opera, pop rhythms and ballet music appear.

This distinctive structure means that a successful performance of Nixon in China requires great singing actors. The justly celebrated premiere production, directed by Peter Sellars and featuring Boston-area stalwarts Janes Maddalena as President Nixon and Sanford Sylvan as Premier Chou En-lai, was exemplary. It also included a superb portrayal of Pat Nixon by the extraordinarily versatile crossover artist Carolann Page – who teaches today at Westminster College, less than a mile from where Princeton Festival performs.

NiC002.pngDeath of Mao

The Princeton cast was comprised of younger American singers with a solid track record in regional houses and on the competition circuit. Almost all excelled in what was the first time performing this difficult score. Baritone Sean Anderson, who has performed here several times before, blustered self-importantly as Nixon. Lighter baritone John Viscardi remained dignified and smooth in the lighter role of Chou En-lai. Coloratura Soprano Rainelle Krause reined in a few blaring high notes to offer a subtly characterized renditions of Pat Nixon’s big monologue. Soprano Teresa Castillo brought down the house with Madame Mao’s big rant, even if she lacks some of the icy precision and focus the score suggests. Tenor Cameron Schutza deployed a ringing Heldentenor to portray Chairman Mao. Baritone Joseph Barron was gruffly sonorous as Henry Kissinger. Each singer was precise and passionate and acted well.

A great performance of this difficult opera, however, requires more. Maximum impact requires singers able to deliver lines with the subtlety, exceptionally clear diction and clear and beautiful tone of a Lieder singer – something made easier by the use of microphones authorized by the composer. In general, the Princeton performance was more conventionally “operatic” that it might have been, and not all singers consistently attended to stylistic nuances.

One example must suffice. Unlike many modern composers, Adams writes with exceptional attention to poetic cadence. The note values in his vocal lines subtly mirror different patterns of long and short syllables. In particular, the ends of many lines are syncopated (most often LONG-short-LONG, or LONG-short-short). (An example is President Nixon’s first sung line: “News has a kind of MY-ster-Y”.) This distinctive three-syllable rhythmic snap drives the music forward – much as does the rap cadence in a more recent work like Hamilton.

Such details intermittently went missing, as one might expect in a short run. Achieving such stylistic unity requires, in addition to precise coaching, a conductor who keeps the orchestra moving swiftly and is willing to hold down the volume and weight of the instrumental playing. Festival Director Richard Tang Yuk directed with his customary care and precision, and the orchestra and chorus delivered a polished performance of this difficult work – even if cautious tempos, a thick sound, and intermittent lack of rhythmic nuance tended, in the end, to drag the performance down somewhat. The staging showed that much how much innovative lighting and color can achieve at a relatively low cost. The opening and closing scene, in which Chou stands before the casket of Mao, was particularly effective. The ballet dancers were engaging.

Overall, this production reinforces the Princeton Festival’s reputation as a site for innovative and sophisticated summer opera.

Andrew Moravcsik

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):