Over the Weekend: Nixon in China @ the Ellie Caulkins Opera House

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Nixon in China Saturday, June 7 Ellie Caulkins Opera House

Although Nixon in China premiered way back in 1987, the John Adams-Alice Goodman opera still feels fresh and quirky. But neither the brashness of the piece itself nor Opera Colorado's energetic and imaginative rendering of it during its June 7 Denver bow at the Ellie could entirely disguise its narrative weaknesses -- namely the relatively static quality of the material.

No question that the historical events at the heart of the tale -- President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China, the first by a U.S. leader since the imposition of Communist rule in 1949 -- provide a vivid setting for the opus. Moreover, Nixon proves to be a wonderfully unlikely protagonist -- a much parodied, generally reviled character seen at what even his many detractors concede was a moment of personal triumph. Just as important, the supporting characters, including Nixon's wife, Pat, China's Chairman Mao Tse-tung, his wife, Madame Mao, Chinese prime minister Chou En-lai and American secretary of state Henry Kissinger, offer opportunities aplenty for irony, juxtaposition and reconsideration.

In the end, though, the trip wasn't rife with incident -- at least not as depicted in Goodman's libretto. The first act revolves around the U.S. contingent's arrival in China, a long, quizzical meeting with Mao, and a celebration at the Great Hall of the People built around formal toasts. Things pick up in the second act in part because it revolves around attendance at an opera written by Madame Mao that features lots of action; a young peasant girl (symbolic of China's people) is whipped mercilessly to the delight of Kissinger and the horror of Pat. But the third act is dominated by personal reflections by the individual characters -- everyone except Kissinger, who asks to be excused to relieve himself at one point and then spends the rest of the production splayed out on a platform next to a woman he's befriended. Kissinger's randiness is a running gag throughout.

Rather than building to a moment of great drama, Nixon in China drifts toward an anti-climax that left many of those in attendance more puzzled than satisfied. Indeed, a curtain call initially seemed in doubt, with an unexpected number of patrons blitzing out of the room rather than applauding until the cast reappeared -- and the crowd as a whole didn't stand until the arrival of conductor Marin Alsop, a local heroine making a noteworthy return. Adams' minimalist score is actually quite striking, but it lacks the sort of easy melodic elements that ticket buyers could hum as they walked to their cars. With that in mind, Alsop focused on the music's thrust and sweep -- a decision that assisted the singers immeasurably.

The principal actors were generally winning, with only Marc Heller, as Mao, failing to deliver a consistently vivid characterization. Robert Orth imitated some of Nixon's physical traits -- his ridiculously enthusiastic wave at the outset triggered a burst of laughter from the throng -- but he avoided blatant mimickry, portraying Dick as an American go-getter impatient to accomplish something/anything. Maria Kanyova's Pat also sported more facets than anticipated, her prim propriety leavened with compassion and at least a modicum of depth. As Kissinger, Thomas Hammons imbued his character with welcome ribaldry -- his hip-thrusting in Act II was a comic highlight. Tracy Dahl transformed Madame Mao into a memorable dragon lady despite one miscalculation; in Act III, her aside to attendees -- "Let's show these motherfuckers how to dance" -- came across as a gratuitous break in character. And Chen-Ye Yuan turned in arguably the finest vocal performance, allowing Chou En-lai to stand out even though many in the audience probably had only a vague recollection of his importance in the event's overall scheme.

James Robinson's staging deserved praise, too. The opening, with members of the People's Army slowly filling the stage amid ritualized choreography inspired by Tai Chi, was a masterpiece of subtlety, and the use of video monitors displaying historical footage (some of it actually shot by participants in the 1972 trek) livened up the proceedings considerably. But there was only so much he could do. The third act was essentially a series of solos conducted in front of TV screens, and when each actor finished, he or she would freeze in place while a colleague stepped to the fore. By the time they were finished, the audience seemed pretty chilly as well.

Perhaps crowds at the next several performances will be more prepared for what follows. (Additional shows take place on June 10, 13 and 15; surf to OperaColorado.org for more information.) And even if they aren't, they'll receive more than enough compensation. Better an intriguingly erratic offering than a wholly predictable one. -- Michael Roberts

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