Opera Dortmund 2023 Review: Nixon in China

A Production With Excellent Potential Falls Short Thanks To Insensitive Sound Amplification

By Alan Neilson
Photo: Anke Sundermeier

In 1972, President Nixon made his historic visit to China. The event, at the time, was seen as a pivotal moment in establishing political relations with a country that, since World War Two, had remained largely closed to the wider international community. The significance of Nixon’s visit was reflected in the fact that it received widespread media coverage across the globe. People still alive today clearly remember the images of the President waving as he disembarked Air Force One at Beijing airport.

Fast forward to 2023, and China has emerged as a 21st century superpower and is assertively challenging the USA for economic, political and military dominance. Even if only on a symbolic level, there can now be little doubt as to the significance of Nixon’s visit. In 1989, John Adams and Alice Goodman recognized the fact with the premiere of their opera “Nixon in China,” which was quickly deemed a success and entered the repertoire of many companies in Europe and the USA.

Berger’s Multi-layered and Imaginative Direction

Opera Dortmund has now joined the list with its production, directed by Martin G. Berger. The immediate problem facing any director is how to tackle the work. With the benefit of hindsight, in which the consequences of Nixon’s visit are now clearly understood, and people’s memories of the event now formed, and complemented by images and reports easily accessible via the internet, is it really possible for an opera to compete by relaying the events in a meaningful manner without hollowing it out or presenting it as satire? This question was at the heart of Berger’s approach.

His starting point was to imagine how the watching world would have engaged with the event through the lens of the media, which itself is a mixture of illusion and reality. During the musical introduction, he introduces a new non-singing character, called ‘I,’ who in the first act is a young girl whom we first see playing with a box of puppets. She consequently views the media coverage from a childlike or adolescent perspective, which is reflected in the way in which the act is presented. We, therefore, watch Mao and his coterie high on drugs, lounging around his residence; Nixon is presented as a teenager and, of course, the exchanges between the two men are full of adolescent posturing, typical of alpha male youths; Chou En-Lai behaves like a spoilt brat who thinks he knows everything; and so on.

In Act two, ‘I’ is now middle-aged. She is politically aware and has her own agenda, particularly with regards to the role of women; she now views the events of Nixon’s visit from a more mature perspective. Again, this is reflected in the characters’ behavior. Pat Nixon’s visit to the glass elephant factory, for example, is presented exactly as what it was: a circus. She is lowered onto the stage on a trapeze, and the workers are dressed as clowns. In Act three, we move into the phase of old age, which is set in an old people’s home. Mao, Nixon and the rest of the cast are joined by other figures from history, such as Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher, Gaddafi and Stalin, along with many others. For the most part, they sit at a table and eat, which for most of the main cast will be their last supper, as one by one they fall down dead.

Certainly, it is a contrived reading, one in which Berger forces his ideas into the plot through the introduction of ‘I,’ along with other heavy interventions that have only a tenuous, if any, connection with the original libretto, such as Mao’s use of drugs. Yet it was very successful on other levels, particularly in keeping the focus on the personalities, their feelings and their personal relationships with each other, which is how Adams and Goodman saw the opera, while cleverly setting it in its political context through the use of symbolic references, most obviously in the distribution of US flags and Mao’s red book, but also with more complex images such as the tree in which Mao’s entourage lay in its branches smoking while the lower orders tended to its roots.

Despite his interventions, Berger kept the underlying thrust of the libretto firmly in focus, so that even if certain symbolic meanings were missed, the narrative was clearly presented. It also had a good pace; there were hardly any moments in which the dramatic momentum faltered.

Aided by the scenographer, Sarah-Katharina Karl, costume designer, Alexander Djurkov Hotter, lighting designer, Vincent Stefan, and video creator, Vincent Stefan, Berger’s staging was colorful, visually engaging and imaginative. On occasions, it was amusing, such as when all the characters dance a conga in the old people’s home; other times, it was brutal, ugly and disturbing, as when, during the performance of Chiang Ch’ing’s ballet, Lao Szu/Kissenger forces ‘I’ to perform oral sex, who subsequently sinks her teeth into his penis. There were plenty of cleverly designed scenes: when Nixon arrives in Beijing, for example, he does so not from an airplane but through the ‘mouth of truth,’ the Roman marble mask, although on this occasion it had a ballistic missile shoved in its eye. However, other scenes were less convincing. Having Lao Szu/Kissenger sit on a huge chair that dominated the stage was a little too obvious, the idea having been used so many times in the past.

The ideas continued to flow thick and fast. Stefan’s videos added to the sense of movement and color and provided context, although their meanings were not always obvious, as with the extended video of exploding cakes. Dance plays a significant role in the opera, which was enhanced with the introduction ‘I,’ who was played by the dancer Jemima Rose Dean, who watched on and danced her way through many scenes, responding sensitively to the rhythm of the music. The choreographer Gabriele Bruschi’s dance routines were also cleverly designed to promote the drama and deepen the context. In Act one, the clash between East and West was brilliantly crystallized by the flamboyant, colorful, joyful, exuberant dancers from the West and the marshaled, drably dressed and dull dancers from the East, which immediately encapsulated not just the cultural differences but also the ideological underpinnings.

Berger certainly took a number of risks with some of his decisions, especially with the introduction of the character ‘I’ in such a significant role, but they were almost all successful.

The finale to the opera, in particular, was brilliantly managed, in which he had the characters that embody their respective ideologies die, while Chou En-Lai, who alone is able to straddle the gulf that separates the cultural and political West from the East, is left to reflect on Nixon’s visit and to emphasize that ideologies are not the answer to people’s problems.

The only negative was that with so many ideas, it was inevitable that some would be missed or overlooked by the audience, and occasionally the sharpness of the ideas was blunted by their sheer quantity.

Heavy-handed Amplification Undermines The Quality Of The Sound 

It is rare, perhaps unique, for a review of an opera to consider the operative in charge of the sound mixer. However, such was his effect on the presentation that to do otherwise would be remiss.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon these days for singers to be mic’d, and although far from ideal, it can be a fairly unobtrusive experience in which the amplified sound is used discretely to reinforce the voices. This, however, was not so in this case. While the decision to mic the performers may, to a certain extent, have been understandable given the amount of onstage movement, the insensitivity of Jörg Grünsfelder’s mixing was intrusive to the extent that it fundamentally undermined the entire musical side of the production.

Watching the stage was a disconcerting experience as the sound of the voices swept forward from the front of the auditorium, totally disconnected from the singers, who gave the impression that they were miming. If you focused on a singer and then closed your eyes for 15 seconds, there was no sense of movement at all; the singer sounded as if they were singing from a static position. On opening your eyes, however, the singer had usually moved to another part of the stage. There was simply no spatial dimension to the singing. It mattered not whether the singer moved further downstage, upstage, to the left or right, or even turned to face the back or the side. The sound was constant. When more than one singer was involved, there was no sense of depth as the contours of the soundscape were flattened. The balance between the orchestra, chorus and soloists was completely lost. Occasionally, the soloists were promoted at the expense of the orchestra to the extent that it was barely audible. Moreover, the overall volume was far too high. At times, it felt as if my ears would start to bleed. There was a slight improvement following the interval, but the damage had already been done.

Lee-Gundermann’s Quality Asserts Itself

Despite the shortcomings of the sound production and notwithstanding the overall musical imbalance, there were many excellent performances from the artists, not least from the conductor, Olivia Lee-Gundermann, who produced an energetic and rhythmically strong reading from the Dortmund Philharmoniker, which superbly captured the forward momentum of the score and successfully brought out Adams’ imaginative textures. It was an impressive reading, especially given that this was the first time she had conducted the opening night of an opera production.

Baritone Petr Sokolov as Richard Nixon made a strong initial impact, pounding out an expressively tight rendition of “News has a kind of mystery,” which he sang as if he were a pop star, mic in hand and gyrating around the stage. After which, however, he was somewhat overshadowed by other members of the cast and failed to fully exploit the vocal potential of the part to develop his character. He possesses an engaging timbre and sings with a pleasing lyricism, but, on this occasion, he gave the impression of relying too much on being mic’d, causing his voice, at times, to sound relatively passive.

Tenor Alfred Kim produced a bravura performance as Mao Tse-tung. His resonant voice refused to be contained by the amplification and was powerful enough to have an individual space separate from the combined sound emanating from the speakers. His portrayal was that of an emotional Mao, who in his younger incantation was amusingly presented as a hippie. He was vocally secure and assertive, intelligently accented his voice with emotional and colorful inflections, and delivered a strong characterization.

In what was a strongly defined portrait, soprano Irina Simmes played a dignified, caring and feisty Pat Nixon. Her intervention in the onstage ballet, alongside ‘I,’ who mirrored her behavior, was nicely acted and added an extra layer to the scene. It was also a well-sung performance, one that showed off her clear-toned, secure articulation, well-controlled delivery, vocal flexibility and expressivity to good effect.

Baritone Daegyun Jeong produced a wonderfully detailed and nuanced portrait of Chou En-Lai, whose gravitas and inner dignity increasingly revealed themselves as his character moved from youth into old age. His singing has a wonderful clarity, his phrasing is precise, and his ability to express his character’s emotional states, the meaning of his words, and reveal his multi-leveled personality was exceptional, all of which was neatly crystallized in his monologue, “All patriots were brothers once.”

In what was a superbly sung performance that oozed quality, soprano Hye Jung Lee produced a compelling portrait as Madam Mao, Chiang Ch’ing. She cut a commanding figure, dominating the stage with what amounted to an almost sinister presence. The role has a high tessitura, for which Lee’s bright, steely, versatile voice was perfectly suited.

Bass-baritone Morgan Moody’s portrait of Henry Kissinger was exceptionally well-crafted, presenting him as a stiff, aloof conservative, appalled by the decadent behavior of the young Mao and his court. As the capitalist representative in the ballet, he created a very different picture: he was aggressive, abusive, even psychotic. Both characters were clearly the same person, yet distinctly different, and he was successfully convincing in both parts, expertly moulding his singing to fit both characters.

Mao’ three secretaries were played by mezzo-sopranos, Edvina Valjevcic, Maria Heifinger and Hyona Kim, who was also cast as Nancy T’ang. All produced good performances.

The substantial chorus, under the direction of Fabio Mancini, was in fine voice. It produced an animated, energetic performance that managed to bypass the heavy-handed amplification. Even when its numbers meant that the stage was fairly crowded, expert choreography ensured that the impression was rarely one of confusion.

As the final curtain fell, one was left reflecting on the role of the sound mixer. This production had so much to offer: Berger’s reading was entertaining and insightful, Lee-Gundermann’s musical leadership was dramatically sensitive and thoroughly engaging and the cast produced compelling performances. Yet the overriding feeling was one of frustration. It could so easily have been a first-class performance, yet it fell short! It is debatable if amplifying an opera performance is ever a good idea. However, if a company is going to do it, then it has to be done with far greater sensitivity than was on display in Dortmund.


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