I Am Sitting In A Room

Commentary and thoughts on (mostly) classical music.

Monday, July 16, 2007


Mixed reviews from this weekend's performances of John Adams's Nixon in China at the Cincinnati Opera (a local premiere). Among friends, profs, and acquaintances there was a fairly wide variety from "not really blown away" to excited with one or two caveats. I think I'm alone at the most satisifed end of the scale, so much so that I went both nights.

The One
local paper of record* didn't care for the production (the same one done in Chicago last year) but thought the orchestra played fantastically--which was not the case on the night that was reviewed. Both nights, Kristjan Järvi (brother of Paavo, son of Neeme) was completely up to the task of conducting, but it wasn't til that second performance that the orchestra gelled.

Robert Orth as Nixon & Chen-Ye Yuan as Chou En-Lai were the only two holdovers from the Chicago production. Orth is great as Nixon, acting convincingly with his body, speech, and singing. This is the first American opera I've ever seen live, and it's nice to be conversant in the language being sung, to recognize from the gut instead of academically when the composer and performer understand and deliver the nuances--of inflection, rhythm, expression--of their characters. That as much as anything makes a powerful argument for staging more American operas.

Speaking of staging...it's generally OK for 3/4 of the show, with TV monitors aglow throughout showing loops of (apparently recently declassified) film from Nixon's visit. But the last scenes still don't come off; is there an effective way to stage this?

My favorite role in Nixon is Chou En-lai. He gets the most poetically-resonant lines in Nixon, including the last: Outside this room the chill of grace/Lies heavy on the morning grass. I can overlook all the clunky staging of the final scenes knowing that line is coming as world leaders are (literally) stripped down to their core humanity. The live performance has changed at least one (professorial) mind about the third act. Can you credit Chen-Ye Yuan with a large part of that? I do.

What else? Georgia Jarman nailed the fireworks in "I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung"; Pat Nixon (Maureen O'Flynn) was affecting...Oh yeah, no fuselage of "The Spirit of '76"--the most iconic image of the original production. That was disappointing, but now that I look at a couple pictures I can see how it overwhelms the scene...but still...

aworks's Nixon posts * Cinti Opera's production page

* From the comments Mary Ellyn Hutton notes that there are 2 dailies operating in Cincinnati, and that the alt-weekly sent out a reviewer, too. I didn't know the Post had a regular critic, and I'm glad to now. Thanks Mary Ellyn, nice to meet you.

Other reviews: Mary Ellyn (via her site MusicinCincinnati.com) * CityBeat


At 12:48 AM, Anonymous mary ellyn said...

Hello Jason: The other paper in town (there still are two!) liked "Nixon" very much and came back for the second performance. You can check out my review at www.cincypost.com or at my web site www.MusicinCincinnati.com. The online review in the fine Cincinnati weekly, City Beat, is quite worth checking out, too. Cheers, Mary Ellyn Hutton, Music Writer, The Cincinnati Post

At 12:19 PM, Blogger sfmike said...

It may be my favorite American opera, and yes, the third act is probably impossible to stage. But damn them for not springing for a phony plane.

I envy you seeing the production, twice. And once you get "News, news, news, news, has a, has a, has a, kind of mystereeeeeee...." in your head, you'll never get it out.

At 9:17 PM, Blogger jason said...

Thanks sfmike, usually I have to envy the stuff you get to report on out there. Nice to get to turn the tables. :)

Others reading should stop by sfmike's blog, he gets to a lot of arts events in San Francisco and takes seems to take his camera everywhere, providing the blogosphere with copious pictures of many cool things: http://sfcivicccenter.blogspot.com.

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