The annual Princeton Festival does well by both standard operatic repertoire and works less often performed; for example, both The Flying Dutchman (2013) and Peter Grimes (2016) were excellent. Last year was Madama Buttterfly, so this year, the Festival’s fifteenth… Nixon in China? True, now is the ideal historic moment, but the work is extremely complicated, with John Adams’ predominantly minimalist score and poet Alice Goodman’s philosophical libretto. But this was the right choice: a remarkable production performed remarkably.

<i>Nixon in China</i> ensemble © Jessi Franko Designs LLC
Nixon in China ensemble
© Jessi Franko Designs LLC

As someone new to the work who can only stand choreographed minimalism, I was relieved that Adams used multiple styles, including waltz, foxtrot, pop music and something very Stravinskian. But the orchestral side is almost uninterruptedly repetitive, and the opera almost three hours long. By the end, despite the undeniable power of the experience, I was “minimalism’d out”.

The opera imagines the February 1972 visit of the notoriously anti-Communist president to China, intended to reopen US-Chinese relations after 25 years. Amazingly, the day I attended, the current president was visiting China to attempt reinstating trade relations, except that he was responsible for interrupting them. Nothing like Nixon’s thrice-repeated: “I opposed China. I was wrong.”

Nixon in China absolutely demands six interpreters of equal mastery of voice, technique, musicianship, and acting. Each portrays a complex personage who actually existed in recent history, and this via (and despite) Adams’ intricacies of rhythm, multiple variations on minimalist repetitions, and the use of very wide vocal ranges. All six principals have monologues covering political and personal topics, expressing multiple emotions, and fortunately for singers and audience alike, with at least some opportunity to sing warm, lyrical music, especially Pat Nixon. The cast for this production was perfect, also thanks to the astute, sensitive direction of Steven LaCosse.

Sean Anderson (Richard Nixon) and Rainelle Krause (Pat Nixon) © Jessi Franko Designs LLC
Sean Anderson (Richard Nixon) and Rainelle Krause (Pat Nixon)
© Jessi Franko Designs LLC

Baritone Sean Anderson is much taller than the real Nixon, a powerful figure with matching voice, dominating the stage and the Chinese. Yet there were Nixon’s doubts about the challenging detente project (and about himself, “an old Cold Warrior”): in his big opening monologue about the mystery of news, he wonders “Who are our enemies, who are our friends?” (“who” repeated multiple times). He mutters that people misconstrue him; Pat sympathizes about his “nervous perspiration”. Later, he agitatedly regales his patient wife with his World War 2 military stories. Anderson won empathy for these sides of Nixon.

Anderson had a worthy partner in soprano Rainelle Krause, who in strong, flexible voice and convincing acting captured Pat Nixon: devoted, nostalgic, kind, smart and fearlessly showing her horror at the violence of the ballet given in their honor. Hers is some of the best text because of its naturalness, with perfectly suited, even beautiful music. Her long Act 2 aria was outstanding.

Cameron Schutza is the Heldentenor Adams imagined for Chairman Mao, a big voice with a ringing top, declaiming his endless aphorism-catalogue (“My business is philosophy”). He sang subtly for some witty exchanges and sweetly when reminiscing with his wife; he moved like an aging but still energetic man.

Teresa Castillo (Madame Mao) © Jessi Franko Designs LLC
Teresa Castillo (Madame Mao)
© Jessi Franko Designs LLC

Mme Mao was a virulent fanatic, for Adams a coloratura soprano with wild leaps between very high and very low notes. I lost track of how many times the extraordinary Teresa Castillo sang “book” (as in Little Red) as two loud syllables with a big interval up to the second one. Then with Mao she was coy.

Joseph Barron’s lush bass voice was thankfully not required to sound like gravelly Henry Kissinger, but Barron’s music, text and demeanor conveyed the pompous, alternately obsequious and gruff Secretary of State. However, I cannot imagine Kissinger asking Chou En-Lai “Where is the toilet?” unless pronounced “toilette” – a bit of, excuse me, comic relief? It got laughs.

Lyric baritone John Viscardi was an elegant, refined Premier Chou En-lai, like the real Chou, his voice warm and smooth, eloquent when revealing his understanding of history and diplomacy, harder-toned in obligatory Mao-style quotes.

The Princeton Festival Opera Chorus under Gregory Geehern sang, moved and marched with equal precision, like a choreographed Chinese crowd. Artistic Director and conductor Richard Tang Yuk brought out clarity of rhythm and timbre from the Princeton Festival Orchestra, with impressive solos.

Chorus © Jessi Franko Designs LLC
Chorus
© Jessi Franko Designs LLC

Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s tall sets created imposing walls and open spaces, while his black-and-white projections included Chinese characters, circuit boards, American scenes, newscasters tilted sideways, Vietnam and Tiananmen Square. The side of Air Force One suddenly loomed as if at a window upstage. Norman Coates is a master of lighting; James Schuette’s costumes were true to the period. Graham Lustig’s choreography, including for the chorus, was powerful, as was the dancing, but the ballet was too long.

LaCosse opens the opera with a flash-forward of Mao lying in state; Chou En-lai has his first aria. The opera ends with the same scene, but this time, Chou ponders whether “what we did was good.”


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