In every way, the Princeton Festival’s production of “Nixon in China” exhilarates with intelligence and epic sweep.
Steven LaCosse’s production is constantly compelling. He and conductor Richard Tang Yuk not only combine for theatrical and musical brilliance but rivet you to a stage that is busy with Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s enhancing projections and significant action going on in several places at once, including a McCarter Theater balcony box.
About the only thing to rue regarding this magnificent achievement is “Nixon in China” having only one more opportunity to enthrall and delight an audience.
One other regret is intrinsic to the material in the opera with music by John Adams and a libretto by Alice Goodman, and that is to mourn the absence of diplomacy and political expertise demonstrated by President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, and Prime Minister Chou En-Lai. These men tower over their counterparts of today. Nixon may have become a punch line, remembered more for the tragedy of Watergate than the genuine presidential achievements that preceded and paralleled that debacle.
“Nixon in China,” though it depicts disappointment and disillusion as well as advancement and triumph, celebrates what might be the capstone of Nixon’s five-and-a-half years in office, his reaching out to a personal and political adversary, a regime and culture he and others regarded as an enemy, to create rapprochement and promote peace.
This opera is striking in how many facets of philosophy, diplomacy, intention, and cultural difference it broaches and presents with clear aplomb. Goodman’s libretto is packed with wonders, underscored with sensitive deftness by Adams’ music, often described as minimalist but actually rich in texture, wit, and tone. And LaCosse and Yuk don’t miss any of the substance or nuance the composers have given them.
Princeton Festival’s is a production for the ages. Consider it abundant luck if you have the chance to see it.
“Nixon in China” is a treat for the brain. Goodman and Adams find great scope as Goodman captures Mao’s affection for aphorisms, Nixon’s aspirations, the differences in political philosophy and governmental execution that will always separate the U.S. and China, and much more.
Indeed, it is amazing how this depiction of one five-day period that took place 47 years ago puts world history through the ages in perspective.
Adams, Goodman, LaCosse, and Yuk all deserve congratulations for showing how much “Nixon in China” deserves to be in constant repertory and for demonstrating how a complex, thoughtful, and expansive work can entertain as well as enlighten.
“Nixon in China” runs the gamut from hopeful optimism to stark reality through six telling sequences that show the completeness of Adams and Goodman’s concept and the deftness of LaCosse and Yuk’s presentation of it.
The first scene shows preparation for Nixon’s arrival. The setting is military. Mao, in a moment that combines the future with the present, lies in state while young people in uniform relate some of the tenets from his famous red book.
Mao himself speaks in quotation and concept when he meets Nixon, who immediately wants to delve into issues such as Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, and fishing rights while Mao prefers sticking to general, yet pointed, philosophy. Business become serious when Chou En-Lai and Kissinger join with Nixon to get into the meat-and-potato subjects, showing the value of the American steps to open unprecedented talks with China.
All of the major characters are presented in careful detail and variety. The candor allowed each famous figure is particularly impressive. This includes Pat Nixon, who wins hearts as a woman who would prefer a quiet life in California but rises admirably to occasions that require her to be a president’s wife and diplomat.
Nixon is aware the world is watching all that happens in Peking, and the opera finds interest in how the president marries public relations with the genuine agenda at hand.
Adams’ music has a knack for finding the right tone for every occasion. It swells in cascades at the pageantry inherent in Nixon’s visit. It borrows from Chinese music for an extensive ballet in the second act. When the press and the international attention of the occasion are noted, Adams wittily adds the clacking of typewriter keys to his score.
The ballet dominates the second act and becomes a commentary on American and Chinese world views. Most illuminating is how differently the Nixons, particularly Pat, regard the dance sequence, ostensibly shown as an entertainment offered the Nixons, compared with the intention Madame Mao, its planner, has for presenting it.
The performers are all glorious, exhibiting full, colorful voices while conveying the complexity of their characters.
Sean Anderson finds all the moods of Richard Nixon, including a depressive stare when things are not going exactly in the way he wants, or when the president becomes aware of a cultural block that may be difficult to hurdle. LaCosse is wise in having Anderson’s Nixon occasionally mop his brow, comb his hair, or exhibit other tell-tale behaviors associated with the president.
Rainelle Krause is a catalog of facets as she presents a diverse Pat Nixon, at once deferent and astute, aloof and canny, and ready for any role presented to her. Best of all is how Krause finds the hominess in Mrs. Nixon while honing in on her skillful intelligence.
Teresa Castillo is astounding as Madame Mao. She presents a secure, dominant figure who doesn’t take well to disagreement or having anything but her way. Castillo’s voice rings through the massive McCarter space. This is a woman to be reckoned with, even when she is using wiles to woo Mao. Adams is clever in how he marries American and Chinese pop music in his score.
Joseph Barron’s Henry Kissinger is all shrewd business. John Viscardi’s Chou En-Lai exudes elegance and taste. Cameron Schutza is witty Mao, showing an iron hand under his ironic pose as a benign but guiding philosopher.
Jonathan Dahm Robertson does better than most in keeping projections timely and interesting while never letting them become obtrusive enough to dominate the music or libretto. Brittany Rappese’s makeup is perfect, as are James Schuette’s costumes and Norman Coates’s shrewd lighting.
Graham Lustig’s choreography is as far-reaching as LaCosse’s production, catching the military moves of Mao’s cadre and staging a glorious ballet that is a show in its own right.
Nixon in China, Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Sunday, June 30, 3 p.m. $45 to $150, 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.