SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Like a conquering hero returning home, Richard Nixon is drawing cheers from California audiences these days.
Not as the former president, but as the subject of an opera.
“Nixon in China,” increasingly recognized as a modern masterpiece, is finally getting the recognition it deserves on the home ground of composer John Adams, in a sparkling production that highlights the San Francisco Opera’s summer season.
Also on view through July 8 are a musically rousing rendition of Verdi’s “Attila,” and a visually captivating take on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
Adams, a longtime Bay Area resident, collaborated on his first opera with librettist Alice Goodman under the guiding hand of director Peter Sellars. From a mixed reception at its 1987 premiere in Houston, it has gone on to triumphs around the world, including last year at the Metropolitan Opera.
Until now it had never been staged in San Francisco, where David Gockley, who brought that first production to Houston, now runs the company.
This “Nixon,” seen at its second performance Thursday night, is an altogether joyous affair, deftly directed by Michael Cavanagh with terrific sets by Erhard Rom and an exceptional cast of singers who handle Adams’ difficult vocal writing with ease.
The production, originally seen in Vancouver, creates a sense of fluidity that matches Adams’ score and keeps the essentially plotless work from seeming static.
The opening scene, with a crowd of Chinese dignitaries awaiting the arrival of Air Force One for Nixon’s historic 1972 visit, uses projections to show the jetliner materializing through clouds with the president seated alone at a window. The dream-like closing scene, in which the characters muse on the pasts and the future, keeps them moving in intricate patterns, with Madame Mao at one point being wheeled on a tray full of food with arms outstretched toward her husband.
Singing the role of Nixon for the first time, baritone Brian Mulligan attacked the vocal line with solid, resonant tone, reveling in the jerky rhythms of his “News” aria. Soprano Maria Kanyova was a lovely, sympathetic Pat Nixon; Simon O’Neill brought heldentenor strength to the role of Mao, and the tiny, young Korean coloratura soprano Hye Jung Lee drew a huge ovation for her furious rendition of Madame Mao’s chilling aria.
Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi made the most of the buffoonish role assigned to Henry Kissinger, and baritone Chen-Ye Yuan provided quiet dignity as Chou En-lai, who gets the opera’s last lines, wondering, “How much of what we did was good?”
Lawrence Renes conducted with an energy and sweep that made the score consistently fresh and exciting.
One night earlier, the company unveiled a charming new production of “The Magic Flute” by Japanese artist Jun Kaneko. It uses colorful animated drawings of geometrical forms and lines, swirls and curlicues that are digitally projected onto the curtain and stage backdrops to form an ever-shifting accompaniment to the action. These drawings are matched by the strikingly eccentric costumes, heavy on polka dots and triangular or oval shapes.
After a sluggish first act (partly the fault of conductor Rory Macdonald), things picked up considerably in Act 2. Soprano Heidi Stober blossomed into a radiant Pamina, while coloratura Albina Shagimuratova dazzled with her high notes in the Queen of the Night’s vengeance aria (which Adams took as inspiration for Madame Mao’s big scene.).
The men were less impressive. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson’s sound evaporated whenever he had to dip into his lowest register; baritone Nathan Gunn was an amiable but light-voiced Papageno, and tenor Alek Shrader, announced as suffering from a cold, sang cautiously as Tamino.
The opera was given in a new English translation by Gockley himself. It had a nicely colloquial feel but too often resorted to cheap jokes, as when Tamino, hearing Papageno mention the “Star-flaming queen,” responds: “Sounds like something out of a drag show!”
The rewards of “Attila,” which opened on Tuesday, were all on the musical side. The head-scratching production, a joint project with La Scala, begins evocatively, with bodies impaled on spikes next to the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. But director Gabriele Lavia tries to make the case for Verdi’s early opera as a case study in oppression and rebellion through the ages by placing each act in a different historical period. This concept reaches absurdity in Act 3, set in the wreckage of a modern movie theater, which happens to be playing a film about Attila.
Still, “Attila” crackles with irresistible raw energy and passion — and music director Nicola Luisotti brought out these qualities in his conducting.
As the barbaric Hun (more sinned against than sinning in this piece), bass Ferruccio Furlanetto dominated the stage with his dark, rich voice and brooding charisma. Baritone Quinn Kelsey was his equal as the Italian warrior Ezio, his warm, resonant sound at times reminiscent of the great Leonard Warren.
As Odabella, soprano Lucrecia Garcia began promisingly, tearing through her opening aria “Santo di patria” with aplomb. Subsequently, however, her tone tended to sound thin on her high notes.
Tenor Diego Torre, as the knight Foresto, has a voice too small for the role and frequently showed signs of strain. One had to feel sorry for him when, during his third-act aria, he was forced to compete for our attention with a flickering image of Jack Palance rampaging through the 1954 Hollywood production “Sign of the Pagan.”
It was no contest.
More Related Stories
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
- Stephen Colbert to UVA: "You must always make the path for yourself"
- "Game of Thrones," season 3, episode 8: A salon
- Bieber booed, Miguel falls on fan at Billboard Awards
- "Mad Men" recap: Love, acid and whores. Lots of whores
- Taylor Swift leads Billboard winners
- “Game of Thrones” recap: “We must do our duty”
- "The Unwinding": What's gone wrong with America
- Michael J. Fox wins: The best and worst of the new fall shows
- First look: The Coens' marvelous folk-music odyssey
- New York's most persecuted subway artist?
- James Franco: "I really felt I was in conversation with Faulkner"
- "Jodorowsky's Dune": The sci-fi classic that never was
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11