The Lyric Opera’s production of “Nixon in China” is, in a word, stunning.
Thanks to John Adams’ pulsating score — performed authoritatively by the Kansas City Symphony under Ward Holmquist’s baton — combined with splendid performances by exceptional soloists, innovative staging and a jaw-dropping physical production, this show is one for the books.
Director Michael Cavanagh, who staged the piece in 2010 for the Vancouver Opera, brought most of the major design elements from that production with him. The result is a succession of indelible, color-drenched stage pictures that viewers literally will not be able to get out of their heads. Ever.
Indeed, this is a singular aural and visual experience from the word go.
The first breath-taking moments come courtesy of projections designer Sean Nieuwenhuis. Through a bank of gray clouds we glimpse “The Spirit of ’76,” Nixon’s presidential aircraft, as it approaches the Peking airport. The plane looms larger in the frame — a massive screen stretched across the proscenium — as the “camera” moves in for a tighter shot and through a window we see James Maddalena as Nixon, crisply illuminated. It’s just the first of a series of memorable visual effects.
As first lady Pat Nixon tours schools, factories and a pig farm, the locations are represented by fragmented moving images seen on white placards held by supernumeraries. At one point a sort of collage of undulating American flags are visible around the borders of the enormous red flag of the People’s Republic of China. Erhard Rom’s sets are an intriguing mix of the monumental and the intimate, which in way reflects the music — an absorbing rhythmic melange of ceremonial solemnity, occasional bombast and unconventional melodies that stick with you all the same. Chris Maravich’s dynamic lighting is at once vivid and subtle.
Needless to say, I’m a sucker for spectacular imagery, but the opera happens to be about human beings, wonderfully enacted by a terrific cast.
Alice Goodman’s libretto is poetic, sometime oblique and frequently satirical. She mines the incongruities inherent in the meeting of two iconic leaders — Richard Nixon the anti-communist and Mao Zedong, the ruthless architect of communist China.
Baritone Maddalena was in fine voice for the Saturday opening, and his performance beautifully captures the weird mix of banality and vision that makes Nixon a memorable figure. Baritone Daniel Belcher, as Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, sings the role with piercing clarity. And tenor Alan Woodrow brings wry humor to Mao.
But this show really belongs to the ladies. Soprano Maria Kanyova’s heartfelt portrait of Pat Nixon as a woman of simple origins uncomfortable on the world stage is extraordinary. Her voice could stop time. And Audrey Luna brings her crystalline soprano to the searing role of Madame Mao — a merciless revolutionary who makes your blood run cold.
Baritone Richard Paul Fink has fun with the libretto’s farcical depiction of national security adviser Henry Kissinger, who becomes a surrealistic participant in the revolutionary ballet that takes up a big chunk of the second act. William Whitener choreographed the dances and principals Nadia Iozzo and Logan Pachciarz are elegant and impressive.
The piece ends on a quiet, reflective note as each of the main characters — the Nixons, Zhou, Mao and Madame Mao, Kissinger — look at where they’ve been and what they’ve done. It’s a poignant conclusion to a remarkable opera.