Thursday, April 12, 2012

Nixon in China opens at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris

Nixon in China, Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, April 10 2012

Director ..... Chen Shi-Zheng
Conductor ..... Alexander Briger

Richard Nixon ..... Franco Pomponi
Pat Nixon ..... June Anderson
Henry Kissinger ..... Peter Sidhom
Mao Tse-tung ..... Alfred Kim
Chiang Ch'ing (Mme Mao) ..... Sumi Jo
Chou En-Lai .... Kyung Chun Kim
Mao's 1st Secretary ..... Sophie Leleu
Mao's 2nd Secretary ..... Alexandra Sherman
Mao's 3rd Secretary ..... Rebecca de Pont Davies

Orchestre de Chambre de Paris
Choeur du Châtelet

40 years after Nixon's famous visit to China, Théâtre du Châtelet decided to mark the anniversary by a new production of probably the most known opera by John Adams. The opera got somehow indistinguishable from the Peter Sellars production that traveled around the world and on its way visited Paris about 20 years ago. The spectacular landing of the Air Force One in the Sellars production made last night a few older opera aficionados sigh with nostalgia when they realized that the Air Force One was missing in this production. If you're still interested in watching the Peter Sellars production --presented at the Houston Grand Opera in 1987-- you can find it on YouTube (start from here).

Personally, I have mixed feelings about this opera. If we stick to the John Adams' opus, then I definitely prefer Doctor Atomic to Nixon in China. I understand that the latter was far more popular, mostly because it was created before the end of the Cold War. Musically, however, Doctor Atomic has much better transitions and the sound is far more personal than in Nixon, which is essentially a potpourri of musical patterns of the composer's various musical influences, somewhat awkwardly packed together (ah those transitions!). It is actually in the last part of Nixon that the score becomes truly interesting, but unfortunately that comes too late when the libretto failed to sustain our attention to either the music or drama. Which brings me to the libretto. Like Doctor Atomic, this opera also suffers from the poorly constructed libretto. I believe the topic for Doctor Atomic is much more interesting today and the moral issues it tackles are far more atemporal than the Nixon's visit to China (the historical importance of which is pretty questionable).

What is then in it to see? The awkwardness of the situation. A discomfort of making the rational steps to getting closer to someone totally opposite from everything you are or stand for. It is that awkwardness of the improbable encounter that despite all of the insurmountable political, cultural, historical differences, actually happened. In that respect the awkwardness of the transitions in the score actually become welcoming for the drama.

Arrival of Pat and Richard Nixon

The storyline is not particularly thrilling and any theater director would struggle to make it really work with audiences today. The lengthy opening scene with the Chinese waiting for the US plane to arrive culminates with the presidential couple 'materializing' in front of the wall (pic above). I thought it was an astute way to show that America for the Chinese was 'the other side of the wall'. Furthermore, as the production director Chen Shi-Zheng said in an interview, prior to that visit the West was considered as evil in China, and the very appearance of two smiling faces on the tarmac of the Beijing airport was surprising if not eye-opening moment for many. Shi-Zheng is a Chinese who lives in the US since many years. He is a good director whose Miss Fortune we could see last year in Bregenz (that show would have been far less interesting interesting if it was presented without his staging).

Kissinger,  En-Lai, R. Nixon and Pat

The reception at Mao's office was awkward [there is not too much space to do something peculiar stagewise], but I must insist on the superb vocal qualities of the singers.  Franco Pomponi is known to be an excellent singer and his big voice is more than welcomed in the large auditorium of Théâtre du Châtelet. To that add an absolutely phenomenal Alfred Kim who not only perfectly impersonated the aged dictator but also impressed by his big, alerting and a rock solid voice.  As a curiosity, this is the first production of this opera with all the Chinese roles sung by the Asian singers. Peter Sidhom's role is not long but he gives his best as usual. Another Asian singer to remember is the young Kyung Chun Kim. The role of En-Lai is long and tough to sing, and he did it wonderfully -- matching the level of Kim and Pomponi.

Presidents Mao and Nixon: Alfred Kim and Franco Pomponi

It is in the second act that we get to see more of June Anderson and she has her big moment in the long aria filled with inadvertent transitions that for someone who excelled in bel-canto throughout her career must have been very difficult. She completed it magnificently.

Later on she was fun to watch in the scene when she interposed in the ballet show. That scene is actually a good and ambiguous part of the libretto: on one hand Pat is humanly touched and cannot bear watching a blatant act of injustice being glorified by that ballet, and on the other Pat appears as an uncouth woman who intercept the dancers on the stage to defend her point of view. That obviously adds to the awkwardness of the whole situation, although it does look funny to see Pat/June hitting  the creepy man in the ballet with her handbag. Another unintentionally funny detail is that the sleazy man is not only the Kissinger lookalike; he also looks like Dominique Strauss-Kahn which --given the context of the story and the current charges against DSK-- provoked a wave of snickering in the crowd.

A scene from the ballet

That's where  Sumi Jo steps in and surprises everyone by the volume of her voice. The role of Chiang Ch'ing is very hard to sing because it hammers the top vocal registers and should covey the fierce character of someone who blessed the Cultural Revolution, and who stands for her Communist Party with the same zeal of notorious religious extremists.

Chiang Ch'ing shows off her Communist Party membership card: the only way to go...

And we arrive to the final scene where all the protagonists are exhausted by the awkwardness of the entire visit, and the story gets a more personal, more intimate, dimension. Musically, as I said it above, it is good John Adams, and scenically the director decided not to give up on awkwardness again. There is a huge cubic scaffolding in the center of which an immense statue of Mao is being erected. It's the director's way to remind us that even that intimate scene is evacuated of its intimacy: Mao's cult in China 1972 was overwhelming and everywhere.

Nixon tries and climbs up the scaffolding to check up the upper part of the statue (so tall that is goes above our field of vision), and then comes back, down to his Pat: to reassure her that it's all fine (Mao's been taken care of)? to say it's just a cult -- the man is very different from this?  

Protagonists, each having their more personal moment under a huge overwhelming statue of Mao

The scene with Mao standing beneath his enormous statue is particularly poignant (more of very strong singing from Alfred Kim). The final act ends with En-Lai who --after having spent time with their American guests-- has his moment of doubt, "How much of what we did was good?", in a very fine interpretation by Kyung Chun Kim.

So, all in all, if you like this opera, you will most probably love the show: (1) because of its very strong cast [practically unbeatable], (2) because of its scenic qualities that give a fresh look on this opera and emphasize the discomfort of the whole Nixon in China experience on more than a few levels, (3) because of the Australian conductor Alexander Briger who does a very good job with an otherwise very difficult score to perform.

If you can go and see it at the Théâtre du Châtelet please do: it is a new production and the creative spark of good new productions is always special to witness at the theater. If you cannot go to Châtelet, I've got some good news for you too: the last show in this run [Wednesday, April 18th 2012] will be live broadcast on Mezzo TV starting from 8 p.m. (cet).

All the production photos above are ©Marie-Noëlle Robert.

My CC pics:

Just to give you an idea of how huge and imposing is the statue of Mao (surrounded by scaffolding in the background of the chorus and dancers -- all bravi!)

A name to remember: Kyung Chun Kim

Surprisingly strong performance in this repertoire by Sumi Jo

Peter Sidhom as Kissinger [ironically, standing next to Chian Ch'ing ;)]

The least blurred photo of Alfred Kim I could take: superbly sung and wonderfully acted - Bravo!

Franco Pomponi and June Anderson as Richard and Pat Nixon (sorry it's blurred)

Alexander Briger (unfortunately I didn't get any photo of the director Chen Shi-Zheng and his team...)


and a video filmed during the piano rehearsals:


  1. Great review. Thanks!

    BTW, Chen Shi-Zheng's family name is Chen, not Shi-Zheng. In Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other Asian cultures, the family name goes before the given name. (You probably already knew this. But when their names are translated into English, some Asians choose to keep their custom while others do what the Romans/English do, thus the confusion. :)

    A decade or so ago, Chen staged a Chinese opera "The Peony Garden" at the Lincoln Center. There is a documentary about the show available. (I showed bits of it to my students, just to help them get some ideas about what a Chinese opera looks like).

    I am waiting for someone to turn Dai Sijie's "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" into an opera, and Chen Shi-Zheng could be a perfect candidate to stage it.

  2. And me who was totally convinced "Zheng" could not be the first name... Thanks!

    This is often frustrating as many Asians reverse the order and put their first name first. Since we have hard time distinguishing the first from their last name (except in some specific situations)...

    I am pretty sure he will have more success in his career as he has that Asian sensibility, had his share of hardship in China and in the US, where he must have struggled at the beginning... Tough moments in life regularly shape the artistic sensibility and open the artist more to the world around him.

    An opera based on "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" would be terrific!

  3. Thank you for your well-written and insightful review. I watched most of the online feed yesterday, and while I thought the performers, staging, conductor, and orchestra fantastic (La June! La Sumi!), after about an hour Adams' music gives me a pounding headache. The endless underscoring of EVERYTHING in that atonal "no aural guideposts here!" fashion, and his seeming refusal to break up the story of his music into chapters, instead of one long tone poem, drives me mad. The audience seemed stunned that they were finally allowed a breathing space to applaud after Ms. Jo's fiendish aria. (Insert quote from Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus" here.) Perhaps it would have been different seeing it live, as I really want to like his work...

  4. After watching the Live Feed, Franco Pomponi perfectly embodied Nixon with sweat and hand gestures. At times though, he looked more like Ronald Reagan. I would still love to see a production with Act III in it's original setting: The Hall of the People. I have pictures in my head of the Nixons draped in an American flag bedsheet on one side and The Maos in a Chinese Flag. A little obvious, I know. Thank you for this great review!