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Powerful Ping-Pong Diplomacy

Long Beach
Terrace Theater
03/20/2010 -  & 28 March 2010
John Adams: Nixon in China
Michael Chioldi (Richard Nixon), Suzan Hanson (Pat Nixon), John Duykers (Mao Tse-Tung), Roberto Gomez (Cho En lai), Kyle Albertson (Henry Kissinger), Ani Maldjian (Chiang Ch’ing), Ariel Pisturino (Mao’s First Secretary), Leslie Anne Cook (Mao’s Second Secretary), Peabody Southwell (Mao’s Third Secretary)
Long Beach Opera Chorus, Henri Venanzi (Chorus Master), Long Beach Ballet, David Wilcox (Artistic Director), Long Beach Opera Orchestra, Mark Menzies (Concertmaster), Andreas Mitisek (Conductor)
Peter Pawlik (Director), Wilhelm Holzbauer (Set Designer), Jörg Gaulocher (Costume Designer), Dan Weingarten (Lighting Director), Jenny Weston (Choreographer), Bob Christian (Sound Designer)

(© Keith Ian Polakoff)

In life there have been many historical moments: the first man on the moon, tearing down the Berlin Wall and America’s first African-American President. So, too, is the landmark visit which President Richard Nixon made in 1972 to the People’s Republic of China. These two superpowers were at extreme odds with one another and quite literally at opposite ends of the earth: two totally different worlds. It was a historical turning point when the 37th President of The United States arrived on Chinese soil on February 21, 1972 to meet Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.

One of the most frequently performed operas in the modern genre is that of Nixon in China. Based on the poem by Alice Goodman, Massachusetts native John Coolidge Adams created a fascinating score, chronicling the three day whirlwind visit to this distant land.
The last time Long Beach Opera performed Nixon in China was in 1990, and we are fortunate enough to see Peter Pawlik’s production that is mesmerizing, captivating and energetic. Likewise, the casting of characters is a tour de force.

As the curtain opens, we witness the talents of Dan Weingarten’s lighting as he silhouettes the advancing Chinese soldiers, making their way to the tarmac in preparation of the Spirit of ’76’s arrival. The presidential plane moves to the forward stage, its engines amplified by sound designer Bob Christian.

Michael Chioldi’s Richard Nixon is a perfect fit. Having sung in many established opera houses around the world, his vocal talents as a baritone are strong and presidentially confident. The second scene in Act I is truly remarkable. Here we see four gigantic red conference chairs strategically and symbolically roll around the floor, periodically occupied by dwarfed characters. As Andreas Mitisek delves into the broadening musical reaches, this magnifies the political dialogue taking place between the bombastic Mao Tse-Tung, the President and the contemplative and drooping Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

Alice Goodman’s poetic contributions are brilliant and exceedingly powerful. As a side bar, her talents require a return visit, as there’s much to digest within the cerebral reaches of the text. Nonetheless, when the libretto merges with John Adams’ artful composition and professional singers, there is much to assimilate. John Duyker created the role of Chairman Mao in Nixon in China and with great reason. His rendition as Mao Tse-Tung fully resonates between the comic and the declarative as he dialogues between President Nixon and the sadistic (at times) Kissinger, interpreted splendidly by Kyle Albertson.

Long Beach Opera is always on the cutting edge of novel approaches to operatic interpretations, and this Nixon in China is no exception. Acting as lighted fixtures and governmental assistants to the Chairman, Ariel Pisturino, Leslie Anne Cook and Peabody Southwell are costumed in Jörg Gaulocher’s sumptuous formal red dresses while they comment on the musings. Appearing on their heads, the three ladies occasionally have their lampshades illuminated. Brilliantly creative and whimsical.

The choreography, under the command of Jenny Weston, is ingenuous as several poses are struck that help accentuate the commentaries running between the three dignitaries. Ms. Weston also does an excellent job of providing movement on stage that continues the performance’s overall momentum.

John Adams himself describes Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing as being the yin and yang forces behind the two political figureheads. Even though we see Pat Nixon arriving in Peking in Act I, her prominence is displayed in the opening of Act II during her pensive aria, “This is prophetic”. Soprano Suzan Hanson has the stature and musical acumen as the First Lady and carries herself in a dignified fashion as the demure support behind her husband. In contrast, is the foreboding and sinister Madame Mao, Chiang Ch’ing, sung by returning Ani Maldjian. This petite young singer packs a lot of punch that she wields into an ecstatic frenzy during The Chairman Dances. There are several moments within Nixon in China that are spellbinding, but in particular, the repartee she exclaims during the “ballet within the opera” which finds us entranced and fixated with her character. This middle act would not be complete without the physical acrobatics of the Long Beach Ballet. David Wilcox leads the dancers with innovative movements within Madame Mao’s ballet, The Red Detachment of Women, incorporating grands jetés and positions en pointe.

In the final act we see the main characters reflecting on the past forty-eight hours of nonstop pomp and circumstance. John Adams’ orchestration heavily utilizes brass and percussion; however, the closing scene of Nixon in China fades quietly to the sound of a solo violin. Perhaps the accomplishments of Roberto Gomez, stepping into the role as Cho En lai, sums it up best: “Is this all worth it?” As viewers of the opera, we then become circumspect.

There is much to applaud in this edition of Nixon in China. Long Beach Opera has rallied one hundred and eleven individuals from varying artistic disciplines in making this an unforgettable and remarkable work. Because of the depth and breadth of content, if you attended opening night as I did, I would encourage you to return to the second and last performance. You will be further enlightened. We are fortunate to have Long Beach Opera deliver its magic once again.

Christie Grimstad



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