The Chill of Grace: A Winter Weekend at COC

Robinson’s stylish and imaginative production from 2004, revived this
season by the Canadian Opera Company, illustrates that this opera indeed has a
life beyond that imagined by its creators. In fact, viewing Robinson’s
Nixon in quick succession with creator Peter Sellars’ recent restaging at
the Metropolitan Opera confirms the impression from 2004 that this opera will
provide inspiration for creative teams for generations to come. In the instance
of Robinson’s production (originally designed for Opera Theatre of Saint
Louis), the integrative video design revolutionizes the use of projections
within opera by timing visual sequences so intimately with the music that the
result is practically a new visual libretto. The chosen images are astute as
well as visually stunning, as in the top of Act II when static on the
television screens created a snowy landscape. The televisions themselves were
used as modular architecture throughout the opera; descending from the sky en
mass, acting as a dais for speeches, and evoking individual spaces (perhaps
even headboards) for each of the characters during Act III.

Nixon05.gifMarisol Montalvo as Chiang Ch’ing (Madam Mao) (front) and Megan Latham as Third Secretary to Mao (behind)

Robinson, his design team, and the cast have struck a fine balance that
divides the story-telling between the live action onstage and the use of video
while simultaneously blurring the distinctions between the two elements. At
times, the characters strike poses as if captured within a snapshot and these
moments of heightened realism integrate beautiful with the meta-commentary both
on the screens and built into Adams’ score. Furthermore, despite the
inherent challenge of portraying historical figures, the majority of the cast
does an excellent job of breathing inner life into what could become
caricatures. Robert Orth could scarcely act the role of Nixon better, but he
could have afforded to sing with more beauty of tone at least some of the time.
In particular, the moment when Nixon speaks of fathers and sons joining hands
in peace would have been even more effective had Orth sung more like a baritone
and less like a president. As the Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai, Chen-Ye
Yuan was quietly compelling from the very beginning through the opera’s
haunting last line.

Like the real Henry Kissinger, Thomas Hammons was a strange mixture of
enigmatic power and allure. He also seemed to embrace his role as Lao Szu
within the ballet with real gusto. Maria Kanyova found both the lyrical and
coquettish moments as Pat Nixon and her diction was impressive throughout. Her
middle voice could be more attractive, but her floated top notes were so easily
suspended that it seemed a shame for conductor Pablo Heras-Casado to rush
through them. As Mao Tse-tung and his wife Chiang Ch’ing, Adrian Thompson and
Marisol Montalvo were both committed dramatically but lacked the vocal goods to
back up what could have been splendid performances.

Nixon07.gifAdrian Thompson as Mao Tse-tung, Chen Ye-Yuan as Chou En-lai and Robert Orth as Richard Nixon

Even though most of the action onstage was well synchronized with Adam’s
music, there were several moments of dynamic imbalance between the orchestra
and the singers that cannot be attributed to the use of amplification in Adam’s
score. Rather, the orchestra was plagued by imprecise playing and pacing
throughout, which became distracting and detracted from Adam’s astute choices
of orchestration. That said, the chorus was impeccably rehearsed by Sandra
Horst and it seems very likely that some of the musical missteps will be
corrected during the course of the run.

The lighting by Paul Palazzo was some of the most effective work I have ever
seen in any theatre — ranging from the eerie glow of an unseen television
flickering on the faces of the typical American family to use of Chinese
lanterns on the television screens as a light source. Allen Moyer’s set design
provided several layers of visual and semiotic interest, especially for Pat
Nixon’s tour of sites during Act II, and James Schuette’s costumes were
rhetorically effective while maintaining a strong sense of the opera’s place
and time.

flute10.gifIsabel Bayrakdarian as Pamina and Michael Schade as Tamino

Ultimately, the success of Saturday evening’s performance was largely due to
Robinson’s creative staging which faced the challenges of the libretto
while allowing the quality of the music to speak for itself. In this respect,
Diane Paulus’ new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflˆte was an
entirely fitting companion piece for Nixon in China. Paulus reimagined
the opera’s action taking place on the grounds of a beautiful 18th
century estate as an entertainment on the occasion of the name day of Pamina.
The resulting play-within-a-play scenario worked incredibly well for the first
half of the opera. The staging of the overture introduced the new framework of
Mozart’s familiar characters with uncanny clarity. Papageno took charge
of last-minute rehearsals with some of the estate’s ruder mechanicals
while Sarastro, as lord of the manor, oversaw the entire operation.

From the moment the curtain went up, the cast embraced their dual roles as
characters within the festivities and their “real life”
counterparts. Betty Waynne Allison, Wallis Giunta, and Lauren Segal were as
strong individually as they were as a trio. Rather than portraying Tamino as a
bland hero, tenor Michael Schade embraced the ambiguity of his role. He sang
and acted like a lover and prince (even to the point of being overly precious
vocally) but occasionally revealed a more human impatience or even harshness.
Rodion Pogossov and Lisa DiMaria were ideally matched as Papageno and Papagena.
They were both as generous with their vocalism and musicality as they were with
their spirited comedic performances. Isabel Bayrakdarian may not have been
ideally cast as Pamina, but her acting had the strength of purpose and
conviction necessary to turn the role into the opera’s true heroine. As her
mother, Aline Kutan delivered a one-two punch with the Queen of the Night’s
arias that won’t soon be forgotten.

Flute1.gifLauren Segal as the Third Lady, Wallis Giunta as the Second Lady, Betty Waynne Allison as the First Lady and Michael Schade as Tamino (lying down)

House Music Director Johannes Debus led the orchestra in a brisk and lively
performance. With the exception of a slightly scrappy final chorus, the
choristers were as excellent as they had been the night before. Furthermore,
Paulus’ new context for the opera finally allowed for a female chorus
contingent that didn’t seem totally superfluous to the action. The production’s
concept was not as fully realized in the second half, but the significant
strengths of Act I and the pure charm throughout (enhanced at every turn by set
and costume designer Myung Hee Cho) made the production a joy to behold.

As for the Canadian Opera Company itself, to paraphrase Alice Goodman’s
excellent, beguiling libretto for Nixon in China, how much of what
they did last weekend was good? Most of it was good, and some of it was even

Alison Moritz

image_description=Robert Orth as Richard Nixon and Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon [Photo by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company]
product_title=John Adams: Nixon in China; W.A. Mozart: Die Zauberflˆte
product_by=Nixon in China — Click here for cast list and other production information
Die Zauberflˆte — Click here for cast list and other production information
product_id=Above: Robert Orth as Richard Nixon and Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon

All photos by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company