President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China over 40 years ago. What’s astounding to me is that, in 2015, we are further removed from John Adams’ operatic debut with Nixon in China than the composer was from the historic event that inspired him. Nearly 30 years later, Adams’ seminal work is one of the modern staples of the operatic repertoire and much has changed. Musical tastes sour and compositional styles evolve. This distance of time, in our Twitter-centric world, makes looking at Nixon in China as a snapshot of time supremely fascinating. San Diego Opera’s performance on Saturday night made this impressively clear.

How does one portray Richard Nixon? A polarizing politician if there ever was one, the former president must be portrayed heroically according to Adams. Satire this is not. Yet, a figure whose mannerisms and downfall are so embedded in the American consciousness, even today, cannot escape lampooning. Director James Robinson gave us a Nixon whose insecurities and temper were always bubbling below the surface of Adams’ pulsating music. This Nixon, sung boldly by Franco Pomponi, flipped the bird when the Chairman wasn’t looking and smiled for the cameras in the limelight. It was apparent that Nixon had the weight of his country (or at least his presidency) on his shoulders and Robinson gave us a knowable character who was all too aware of the importance of media visuals, rather than a stoic archetype. After all, “it’s primetime in the USA”. 

This is where Robinson’s take on Nixon hit its stride. The President’s week-long visit was an election year photo-opportunity and Nixon wanted this event to be a visual smash back home. It appeared that television arrived in Beijing with Nixon, as massive old-fashioned televisions were suspended and wheeled around the stage showing actual footage from that week in 1972. The moments of visual opportunity were played up with flash bulbs popping and politicians mugging. It was a sharp contrast to the moments of frustration and impasse in Adams’ opera. Whether in the philosophical debate with Chairman Mao or the intimate interactions of Pat and Richard, Robinson managed to balance the struggles the characters faced internally with the very public demands on them. 

For his cast, Robinson had an invested team of singers who inhabited their historic roles with impressive ease. Franco Pomponi’s Nixon was physically recognizable, vocally stout, and dramatically complex. It was an immersive performance built on the foundation of his ideally tailored baritone. As his wife Pat, soprano Maria Kanyova’s portrayal of the First Lady was modest but strong. Her voice tended to tighten toward the top of her range, but it was a direct sound that made Pat the most sympathetic character onstage. Tenor Chad Shelton was a luxurious bit of casting as Mao. Shelton’s treacherous high notes were dispatched with ease, sounding as if he could still sing nine Donizetti high Cs with grace. Likewise, Kathleen Kim, a specialist in the role of Madame Mao, sang her aria with defiance, piercing high notes and a formidable air. It was apparent that you don’t mess with Madame Mao. 

Chen-ye Yuan sang Chou En-Lai with a wooly baritone that shone best during his closing lines of the opera. Patrick Carfizzi sang Kissinger as a bore, a contrast to the sadistic character in the The Red Detachment of Women when his baritone was loudly snarled out. Sarah Castle, Buffy Baggot, and Jennifer Dedominici were appropriately dry as Mao’s secretaries. 

Conductor Joseph Mechavich led the orchestra with tempos that occasionally dragged, but were thoughtfully transitioned. The players responded tidily for the most part, keeping Adams’ syncopations and patterns clearly articulated. The chorus was musically solid and an imposing presence onstage.

And an imposing evening it was. While the sets by Allen Moyer were minimal (the grand arrival in Act I was much-missed), the production, a revival from Houston Grand Opera, was supremely thoughtful. The Act II ballet, choreographed by Seán Curran, was a highlight, but the profundity of Goodman’s libretto was at the forefront of everything Robinson did. These were historic times with historic, but also human, characters. Adams’ score, particularly the orchestration, could occasionally sound dated, yet like Nixon and Mao, it belongs to a specific place and a specific time. Yet, as San Diego Opera proved, it very well may remain timeless.