In Alice Goodman's magnificent libretto for John Adams's "Nixon in China," Premier Chou En-lai defines the process of history as moving "from vision to inheritance." With OperaBoston's exciting production at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, the history of the opera moves beyond the vision of the original creators into the beginning of its inheritance.
For director Scott Edmiston, the key moment in this epic drama about President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972 comes when Pat Nixon, acting out of pure human sympathy, intervenes in the performance of Madame Mao's propaganda ballet "The Red Detachment of Women." Reality steps into illusion. Edmiston repeatedly shows how the entire opera is built on such intersections -- public figures emerge from private pasts. All the world is a stage, but the players are people.
Susan Zeeman Rogers's striking set is a red silk box inside a larger box of white silk; it was lit last night with great imagination by Christopher Ostrom. The opera advances through a series of monologues that begin in public ways -- a banquet table becomes a speaker's platform -- but end in reflection. The whole opera traces a similar arc, from the churning music of the beginning airport scene, cameras flashing, to the transparency of the close, which dwells in private thoughts of each of the principal characters, which paradoxically unfold in magical ensemble writing.
Not all of Edmiston's ideas work and there is sometimes clutter instead of focus -- the last thing Pat Nixon's aria needs is a dancing double -- but some are brilliant. In the second act finale, for example, all the Chinese characters sing through Mao masks. And his direction of the chorus and principal singers was mostly masterly. Baritone Andrew Schroeder captures the former president's awkward body language and sings with ringing comand.
Baritone Thomas Meglioranza delivers Chou En-lai's interior music with quiet rapture. Soprano Anne Harley offers a spitfire Mme. Mao, machine-gunning high D's. Tenor Daniel Norman was taxed by Adams's ungrateful writing for Mao, but creates a crafty characterization. Majie Zeller, Susan Forrester, and Glorivy Arroyo were sinister and delightful as the "Maoettes" who echo everything the Chairman says. In Gail Buckley's striking costumes, Elizabeth Weigle also looked a lot like Pat Nixon, until she started to flirt knowingly with the audience like a sitcom queen; the point about Pat was how uncomfortably imprisoned she was by public life and her own image. Some of the soprano's singing was lovely, some unsteady. The opera reduces Henry Kissinger to caricature, but baritone Drew Poling made it vivid.
The choreograpahy by Diane Arvanites-Noya and Tommy Neblett for the Prometheus Dance Company told Mme. Mao's agitprop story effectively in straight modern-dance terms, without matching the range of reference in the music. The athleticism of the men was exciting and Callie Chapman was affecting as the tormented heroine.
The opera is an aerobic workout for orchestra and conductor, but Gil Rose and his players were triumphant, and the chorus was first-rate too. This "Nixon in China" made a powerful statement about the artistic aims of OperaBoston, and in this production achievement matched aspiration.