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Nixon in China — Princeton Festival at McCarter Theatre (Matthews)

The Princeton Festival production of “Nixon in China” exhilarates because it succeed on both artistic and intellectual levels.

Alice Goodman’s libretto is unafraid to delve into complexities of history, diplomacy, philosophy, and personality to create a complete picture that is also clear and thought-provoking.

Goodman portrays some of the most important figures of the late 20th century — Richard Nixon, Mao Tse-Tung, Chou En-Lai, Henry Kissinger, Madame Mao, and yes, Patricia Nixon — with depth that reveals their individual brilliance, individual quirks, strengths, and insecurities. She also conveys the thorniness of the Realpolitik that arises when adversaries, thought even to be enemies, engage to solve issues or begin the dialogue that shows understanding of conflicts and a path to settling or, at least, coping with them, agreement to disagree or to postpone final words in an genuine attempt to avoid military action or preserve a testy, but non-belligerent, status quo.

Goodman’s writing is so mature and respectful compared to the pandering cant and drivel in so many scripts today, you want to hug her for giving an audience credit for knowing something, thinking, and determining the value of stances and outcomes on their own.

Heaven bless her. (Even the career-ending controversy about Goodman’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” won’t keep me from thanking her, especially since I’ve never seen “Klinghoffer” and prefer to make up my mind via a good production, if one is ever allowed to materialize, rather than rely on reports, especially from family or advocates who are entitled to their opinions but can’t be considered neutral, as if anyone ever is.)

It is Goodman’s libretto, the characterizations of a sterling cast, and Steven LaCosse’s superb direction, as details and telling as Goodman’s book that keep me riveted to the point of being enthralled.

Emphasizing these elements goes somewhat against the grain of opera, which concentrates on music and scores.

“Nixon in China” is rich is this regard as well. John Adams’s work swells with the optimism while reflecting the confusion, contradictions, and occasional disappointments of the historic meeting between Nixon, Kissinger, and the Chinese in 1972, a foreign policy triumph that would be overshadowed by a clumsy, and for Nixon, tragic, break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex four months later.

Adams does not seem the minimalist he is classified as being. His score for “Nixon in China” has as much variety and sweep as Goodman’s text. It contains several lush sections as well as clever allusion to American pop of the ’40s and ’50s and Chinese traditional music. Cleverness often evolves into wit, e.g. the sound of typewriter keys clacking while the political leaders are expressing consciousness — self-consciousness? — about press coverage of their summit.

Richard Tang Yuk and the Princeton Festival Orchestra capture all of Adams’s nuance. Yuk has Adams’s music roil and swirl as ideas from Mao, Nixon, and Chou are percolating so fluidly on stage. They make you pay attention to Adams’s humor in the appropriate way, by accenting it but never overdoing, as if to say “Look how funny!,” avoiding another curse of modern works.

The Princeton Festival production is its own reward. It exposes artists’ brilliance by never getting in their way, enhancing key moments instead of pushing or bloating them. The result is as much a “you are there” experience as opera can muster. Nixon, Mao, and others are seen in their humanity. LaCosse and his actors go for the real while also showing you, with posture and side moments such as Nixon mopping his brow or Pat Nixon straightening her makeup, that are familiar part of the their public personae.

The language and magnitude of the characters, and the event in which they are participating, shines through.

So much is seen on LaCosse’s stage. Pageantry gives way to philosophy which leads to general aspirations which leads to specific intentions for the Peking meeting which moves into diplomacy which becomes a display of candor, directness, pronouncing, and assuaging which leads to formal ceremony that leads to a look at public and personal stances. This evolves into a sequence of a state visit, especially as regards Pat Nixon, culminating in a sumptuous and pointed ballet staged by Madame Mao to impress Chinese ideals as she conceives them on the Nixons who regard the bold images in from a different, more human, more sentimental point of view. The aftermath of all the above is the conclusion of the summit, which marries disappointment and disillusion, born of broader comprehension and enlightenment with feelings of satisfaction and success at a mission essentially accomplished.

Throughout this exciting wash of images, ideas, impressions, business, declarations, machinations, emotions, and pomp, Goodman, LaCosse, Adams, and set designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson are providing much of import to consider and much of political expertise to savor.

Debuted in 1987, and depicting five days in 1972, “Nixon in China” evokes nostalgia for a level of statesmanship and a quality of leadership that seems absent today. (As I often say, with our last four Presidents being tantamount to Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan, where is our Lincoln?)

Richard Nixon is one of our most fascinating Presidents. He is an interesting man who generates interest, for both his politics and his psychology. Witness all of the books about him, the number of which far supersede the volumes on any late 20th century leader but, perhaps, John F. Kennedy, and most of those deal with JFK’s assassination. Look at the number of movies and plays about Nixon. Numerous Oscars and nominations have gone to actors playing British monarchs, prime ministers, and foreign leaders. Only one Oscar has gone to an actor playing an American President (Daniel Day-Lewis in 2012’s “Lincoln”), and only seven nominations have been given to actors portraying them. Two of those nominations, to Anthony Hopkins in 1995 and Frank Langella in 2008, went to actors playing Nixon. Langella earned a 2007 Tony for his portrayal in “Frost/Nixon.” The only other actors who earned Tonys for playing Presidents are Ralph Bellamy in 1958 as Franklin Roosevelt in “Sunrise at Campobello” and Bryan Cranston in 2014 as Lyndon Johnson in “All the Way.” (Melvyn Douglas won a Tony for playing a fictional President in 1960’s “The Best Man.”)

“Nixon in China” keys deftly into several sides of Richard Nixon. La Cosse’s production and Sean Anderson’s sensitive, thoughtful, and beautifully sung portrayal makes all of them clear and poignant.

Nixon the politician appears in three ways. There is the tactician who knows the China visit is a diplomatic coup, complete with international satellite coverage and opportunities to seen in a positive, groundbreaking light. There’s the glad-hander, who is quick with a smile, handshake, and wave that in LaCosse’s staging plays in stark contrast with the rigid formal posture of Mao and Chou. Most importantly, there is the statesman who knows he is the perfect person to break the long-maintained barrier between the U.S. and China because he was an architect and upholder of that barrier. If Nixon sees value in rapprochement with China, it must be there. He, the resister, is the only one who can ignore the resistance and do, as President, what he thinks is best and most timely for American interest. Nixon has already established a cordial relationship with Leonid Brezhnev. Mao and Chou are next on his list.

The statesmanship is depicted in how direct and candid Nixon can be, even as its seems Mao is going to be evasive and submerge contemporary politics to his overall philosophy, as published in his famous red book, and Chou is going to be pleasant but unbending in adherence to Chinese doctrine. Goodman, LaCosse, and Anderson are smart in the way they let you see Nixon struggling but prevailing. The Chinese are being purposely, inscrutable, but Nixon and Kissinger will make headway.

Nixon is in as much command as Mao or Chou. You see men speaking for a purpose, even one cultural or political differences — which Adams, Goodman, and LaCosse are masterful at defining and depicting — may stymie. Nixon is a man of recognizable substance and intellect. Mao and Chou are as aware of the importance of their conference as Nixon is.

The second, third, and final scenes of “Nixon in China” show Nixon as a man for all seasons, including a moody, depressive season that comes when he realizes a good beginning to discussion and an end to cold-shouldered hostility could not cure some fundamental differences that include the idea of what an individual is and his or her place in a society.

Like Nixon, Mao is shown as a flesh-and-blood human as opposed to remaining an icon on a poster.

The opening scene, with Adams’s overture playing beneath, shows a future in which Mao is lying in state. The precision and discipline of all Mao has wrought in seen in the background. Soldiers, dignitaries, and peasants all mouth Mao’s aphorisms, giving an idea of the indoctrination they have received for the 24 years of Mao’s reign.

When we meet Mao, Cameron Schutza makes him lighter and more prone to both humor and attention to and from women than the usual depiction. “Nixon in China’s” Mao tends to speak in the kind of aphorisms his acolytes quote and repeat after him. He says he is more interested in philosophy than policy, leaving that to Chou and his Committee ministers. He does bluster and contradict strongly when Nixon speaks of anything of which he disagrees or disapproves, including the role of history. Mao eschews the past and thinks only in present and future tense.

The jockeying depicting is intense, with Nixon having to adapt the most and doing so to keep things congenial while on course. That doesn’t mean the President hesitates to speak his mind, only that he recognizes a hurdle or “absolute” when he hears one and moves on or around it.

You can tell Goodman goes into a lot of detail. Rather than being arcane or ponderous, it is intellectual invigorating. You see the mastery of the diplomats while appreciating the verbal mastery of Goodman, the musical mastery of Adams, and the interpretive mastery of La Cosse, his cast, Yuk, and his orchestra.

Act One of “Nixon in China” leaves one in a euphoric atmosphere of energy. So much brilliance has been displayed, you sail into intermission full of enthusiasm and admiration for the opera and the abundant adroitness of every aspect of the Festival production.

Act Two changes the tone but is just as engrossing.

Diplomacy beyond talking becomes the focus. We see Pat Nixon being entertaining by her Chinese escorts while Nixon and Kissinger are busy with Mao and Chou (and three Committee secretaries who sycophantically echo anything Mao says).

It is gratifying to see Pat Nixon depicted with the same care and scope as the statesman. In a sincere soliloquy, Mrs. Nixon talks about the simplicity of her upbringing and a being a typical California woman who imagined herself teaching school more than she envisioned touring the world or being feted as America’s First Lady.

On tour, you see the professional Pat Nixon, a woman of exceptional grace and understanding who is cooperative when asked to do things that turn her tour from a look at Chinese achievement to bits of Chinese public relations, who can smile wanly when presented with propaganda, but who responds warmly to children and industrial displays that smack more of genuine achievement than they do showing off to a visiting dignitary.

Rainelle Krause’s shrewd, multi-faceted portrayals shows a Pat Nixon of many parts, some endemic to her, some cultivated as she fulfills her role as a world leader’s wife. Krause is also adept as a loving woman who tries to take care and support Nixon, sometimes being rebuffed as she does so.

Madame Mao is more monolithic. She alone, among “Nixon in China’s” characters, maintains a distinct line that denotes party policy and the decorum she demands of herself.

Yes, Adams and Goodman provide a brief scene in which you see a younger Madame Mao wooing China’s leader and breaking into a dance as seductive and romantic as one the Nixons have done previously, but for the most part, Madame Mao represents a keeper of political and philosophical faith who isn’t as open to discussion or exchange of views, especially as they pertain to cultural or personal discipline. Sung and acted gorgeously by Teresa Castillo, Madame Mao becomes the character most to be reckoned with and least impressed with her visitors, whom she finds sentimental and not up to Chinese rigor.

The character of Madame Mao is amplified by a lengthy ballet allegedly planned and choreographed by her but created excitingly for the Princeton Festival by Graham Lustig and performed with élan by Eun Kyong Kim, Seyong Kim, Asuza Okamoto, Raymond Pinto, Amy Ruggerio, and Gillian Worek.

This ballet sequence dominates “Nixon in China’s” second act and is meant to show a Chinese peasant’s struggle and the doctrinaire, pragmatic way Mao, through his philosophy and military victories, wrought change that took a peasant woman from feudal dominance and subjugation that included sexual abuse to respect as a farmer or worker toiling happily to build the Maoist order.

In an opera that exposes many ironies, one of the strongest is the Nixons’ reaction to the ballet’s focal woman as an individual needing relief from a terrible existence compared to Madame Mao’s intention that she be regarded as one rescued from forced drudgery to become a loyal soldier and cog in a society that requires its own brand of fealty and can be just as swift in punishment as a feudal lord If one strays from its order, the difference, from Madame Mao’s point of view, being that any resultant drudgery is carried out with communal purpose, dignity, and discipline rather than as unwilling servitude and offers freedom from fear of undeserved beatings or unwanted sexual overtures.

The ballet, in ways, comments more than anything preceding it, on fundamental differences that may preclude a total understanding between the U.S. and China. It leaves Richard Nixon wondering about the good of his summit. Anderson plays that turmoil, with Nixon loosening his tie, mopping his face, and sitting in the position of Rodin’s “Thinker,” with moving reality. You see a man partially defeated amid results that are mostly positive, wondrously so. It is a haunting image.

Anderson, Krause, Castillo, and Schutza are as adept as actors as they are singers. Castillo has a particularly strong and commanding voice. Her important second-act aria immediately and indelibly establishes the power and threatening nature of Madame Mao.

Krause is a marvel in how completely she conveys the complex emotions yet simple desires of Pat Nixon. She gives the First Lady extraordinary stature, showing her poise and competence, while in private moments, or during scenes also with Mr. Nixon, displaying her need to be relieved from the pedestal and allowed space as an individual and appreciation for being a dedicated wife.

Anderson shows the command, camaraderie, and the depressive moods of Richard Nixon. Like Krause, he emphasizes the humanity of a President who was more respected than popular. Anderson, and “Nixon in China” helps us appreciate skill and insight that get lost in the bad judgment, or commanding officer’s loyalty, that robbed Nixon of his rightful place in Presidential history, and worse, of the esteem due one of the most able Presidents in American history.

As I say, tragedy as Aristotle defines it.

Schutza has fun giving Mao a playful side, both as a lover and as a tease who says things, things he means but gives extra seriousness, to get a rise from Nixon, who get the jokes but is as time stung by them. It’s difficult to humanize Mao, but Schutza, though spouting the Chairman’s saws, manages to do it.

John Viscardi is an elegant Chou En-Lai, exuding perfect bearing and fine manners. He also finds the a firm, diplomatic tone in scenes where Chou is sparring with Nixon or Kissinger on fine points of an issue.

Joseph Barron is canny at showing the deferential side of Kissinger. You can tell when his Kissinger disagrees with Nixon or thinks the President has made a cultural faux pas, but Barron always has Kissinger keep his place. He shows the same respect to Chou and Mao while, obvious, having parts of the discussion he’ll find a way to command.

Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set is remarkable in providing so much to look at while never diverting from the action or libretto at hand. Robertson hangs a series of screens that can turn to anything from national flags to carriers of headlines, photos, and information that enhances what we are hearing and seeing while, again, refraining from impinging on it.

Graham Lustig’s dancers display a combination of traditional and interpretive dance that includes some feats or acrobatics, all performed with unceasing aplomb. The variety of the dance, and the shift its story, keep it compelling in spite of its length.

“Compelling” is an apt word for LaCosse’s marvelous production.

I have two regrets. One is Princeton Festival’s “Nixon in China” having but one more performance. The other is the absence of statesmen on the level of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. As I view the candidates for President in 2020, I see none that strikes me as having the stature, competence, insight, intelligence, vision, or will even to be a diplomatic pioneer or make the world a safer, more congenial place. Richard Nixon may have become a punch line, a symbol for a failed Presidency, and one whose paranoia overcame his better parts to create his downfall, but I wish he was around, flaws and all, to run in 2020 so I’d have someone for whom I’d be thrilled to cast a vote.

“Nixon in China” has one more performance, at 3 p.m. Sunday, June 30, when the Princeton Festival presents it at the Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, in Princeton, N.J. Tickets range from $150 to $45 and can be obtained by calling 609-258-2787 or visiting www.mccarter.org.

 

 

 

 

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