Review: Nixon In China (The Canadian Opera Company)

by Melissa Bridges

History is being brought to life on stage with the Canadian Opera Company’s current offering of John Adams’ Nixon in China. The 1987 opera, with a poetic libretto by Alice Goodman, chronicles US president Richard Nixon’s momentous trip to China in 1972. It’s a challenging work, thanks to its minimalist score and abstract story line, however the COC’s production is spectacular.

When Richard Nixon travelled to China to meet with Chairman Mao and Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai, his trip became a media phenomenon covered heavily by the world media. Adams has broken down the five day visit of Nixon, along with his wife Pat and sidekick Henry Kissinger, into a three-act English opera.

The first act covers their arrival and their first meeting with Mao and En-lai. The second act centers on Pat as she tours China, followed by a ballet conceived by Mao’s wife Chiang Ching. The final act takes place on the last night of their stay in China. The characters dance and reflect on the on their individual pasts.

The set design, by Allen Moyer, was appropriately simple and very red, the obvious choice for an opera about communist China, I suppose. Old fashioned TV sets, playing actual footage of Nixon’s time in China, were ingeniously incorporated into the set design, adding to the realness of the opera’s story line.

The cast gave strong performances that were not only extremely well sung, but also wonderfully acted. Baritone Robert Orth was particularly believable as Richard Nixon and Soprano Maria Kanyova was brilliant as Pat Nixon. As Mao’s fierce wife, Chian Ching, Soprano Marisol Montalvo gave a faultless performance. I thought she did a fantastic job negotiating the tricky score, particularly in the final act.

The ballet in the second act, choreographed brilliantly by Seán Curran, was so good it could stand on its own.

My only problem with the production was the fact that the orchestra, lead by Spanish conductor Pablo Heras- Casado, often drowned out the singers.

Nixon in China, directed by James Robinson, is marvelous production and well worth checking out. The running time is close to three hours (it could have been about twenty minutes shorter) with one intermission. I would also suggest doing some reading on Nixon’s actual visit to China; both myself and my guest wished that there was something in the program about the historical context of the opera. You won’t leave the Four Seasons Centre humming any of the beautiful and moving score, but you will have plenty to ponder on your journey home.

– Nixon In China is playing at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West) until February 26, 2011
– Shows times are on specific dates (details available here) and are generally at 7:30PM, except matinees at 2:00PM
– Ticket prices range from $35.03 – $214.70, and rush tickets available at $12 every night at 11:00AM the day of
– Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231

Photo of Adrian Thompson, Chen Ye-Yuan and Robert Orth by Michael Cooper