Set models for the Vancouver Opera production of John Adams' Nixon in China
Okay, I think I can officially say that opera is one performance genre that is just not for me. Last night at the Queen E, sitting through the third act of what I have no doubt is a highly commendable production of John Adams' Nixon in China, I just wanted the whole thing to be over and done with. The performances were very strong (with Robert Orth an especially uncanny Richard Nixon), everyone was in fine voice (Tracy Dahl as Madame Mao especially), the sets (see above) were suitably abstract and monumentalist, the libretto by Alice Goodman was moving and witty by turns, Wen Wei Wang's second act ballet (with a star turn by Fei Guo) was pleasingly diverting, and Adams' famously minimalist music was surprisingly catchy.
But it just went on and on. Why couldn't it all have been reduced to one act of 90 minutes? The third act's self-reflexive ruminations (on both Nixon's trip and Adams' opera) by the six principals seemed especially superfluous, like composer and librettist had run out of ideas for spectacular coups-de-théâtre (ping-pong anyone?). And I couldn't really understand why Henry Kissinger was part of the action, given how under-used he seemed to be (apart from a bizarre role in Act 2's play-within-the-play).
I think part of my difficulty with opera are the expectations of the audience that routinely accompany productions such as this. Acclaimed as one of the 20th century's most important additions to the operatic canon, and receiving its Canadian premiere here in Vancouver (some 23 years after its debut in Houston), Nixon in China is a work we have been told at every turn (in the media and by pundits near and far) that we must and will enjoy. This idea that opera is good for us, that it will ameliorate us as cultural/cultured beings, and that it's appropriate that we should suffer in order to enjoy it, is what really gets up my nose.
I can appreciate its individual component parts, but as a Gesamtkunstwerk opera leaves me cold.