Nixon in China in Chicago!

For the most part, last night’s performance of Nixon in China was a thrilling theatrical experience. Chicago Opera Theatre has given John Adams’ modern opera it’s Chicago premiere almost twenty years after it was first produced. The music, staging, performances, singing, and lighting design combined perfectly to create a riveting work.

Until the third act, but I’ll get to that.

First, the good stuff. The show starts strong, with a great dramatic moment when Nixon’s plane “The Spirit of ’76” touches down in Peking. Twelve console television sets descend from the rafters, their screens filled with interchanging photos, newsreel and amateur footage from the actual event. They create a striking effect, mirroring the event as it was seen by millions around the world, watching on their TVs at home in 1972. Half of the TV sets are lowered to the stage, and pushed around to create different set pieces and provide atmosphere.

The production peaks in the second act, set during the First Lady’s tour, meeting factory workers and school children, followed by a dance performance staged by Chairman Mao’s wife. The Nixons’ response to the “The Red Detachment of Women” ballet enrages Madame Mao’s, a gripping performance by soprano Kathleen Kim. Adams’ score, very much in the vein of Philip Glass, sounded great, and I particularly enjoyed hearing human voices join the bright, staccato music along with the orchestra.

Unfortunately, after a brief pause, the opera continued for a final, leaden act. Gone were the chorus, the dancers, and any movement to speak of. The audience was left with the six major players on a static stage, each perched on their respective TV set as they prepared for bed. Solos and duets plodded on, and without even interesting images on the TV screens to provide visual interest, all the energy from the previous two acts was lost, the music repetitive (and not in a good way), and it all seemed to drrrraaaaaag.

A technical glitch didn’t help matters. The supertitles weren’t working throughout the production, which made it difficult and sometimes impossible to understand what the singers were saying. (I felt bad for the elderly woman sitting next to me who couldn’t make out much of anything.) Luckily, the repetitive nature of the score and libretto worked to the audience’s advantage. Not so in the third act. It was quite difficult to make out what words were coming out of the singers’ mouths, and all subtlety of the libretto was lost. The program synopsis read “the last evening in Peking” which didn’t help much. They could have been singing about the price of tea in China as far as any of us in the balcony good tell.

Perhaps had I understood what they were singing about I might have gotten more out of the third act other than a brief head-snapping nap. I’d still recommend people who are interested in music, opera and musical theater get down to the Harris Theater to catch one of the few performances. The first two acts make it well worth the time and money. And by the next performance, they should have the supertitles working again, so you can tell me what I missed.

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