Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: San Diego Opera’s “Nixon in China” with Pomponi, Kanyova, Kim and Shelton – March 20, 2015

March 21st, 2015

The San Diego Opera mounted the most complex production of its three-opera 2014-15 season – the first San Diego appearances of John Adams’ extraordinary 1987 opera “Nixon in China”.

The opera has been discussed on these pages, particularly the popular Vancouver (British Columbia) production seen in San Francisco [see  25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012 and A Second Look: “Nixon in China” in San Francisco – June 17, 2012, part 1 and A Second Look: “Nixon in China” in San Francisco – June 17, 2012, part 2 and an earlier performance in Long Beach [Richard M. Nixon and Mao Zedong Dance at Smashing Long Beach Opera “Nixon in China” – March 20, 2010.]

Franco Pomponi’s President Richard Nixon

The opera’s principal star was baritone Franco Pomponi in a convincing portrait of United States President Richard Nixon. He embraced Nixon’s exhilaration in participating in the formal rapprochement between the U. S. and Communist China – arguably the most significant foreign policy achievement of his presidency.

[Below: United States President Richard Nixon (Franco Pomponi, front center) is excited about the world’s media coverage of his historic visit to China; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


The president’s quirks and mannerisms, that were a gold mine for comic imitators during Nixon’s vice presidency, candidacy for the Governorship of California and his presidency, were clearly observable.

Yet, one had the strong sense that Pomponi (as I believe any interpreter of this role should do) truly strove to present a realistic portrayal of him, rather than a caricature.

Of course, Alice Goodman’s libretto itself quite deliberately exaggerates Nixon’s idiosyncrasies, particularly when she chooses the words   (News, news, news) to express Nixon’s strong interest in programming events to coincide with the “news cycles” or describing rats chewing at the sheets as Nixon’s metaphor for the political enemies who plot against him.

Although I am not convinced that everything in Goodman’s libretto raises to the same high standards, I find that the words she puts into Nixon’s mouth in the first act seem not only to suggest an essential Nixon, but may well apply also to many politicians in the U. S. and elsewhere at all parts of the political spectrum who have honed their political survival skills or have employed operatives to do so for them.

Chad Shelton’s Mao Tse Tung

It’s been almost eight years since I last saw Chad Shelton in performance (in one of the comprimario role in Glass’ “Appomattox” at the San Francisco Opera). I was very impressed by the his characterization of the decrepit revolutionary leader.

[Below: President Richard Nixon (Franco Pomponi, left) and Chairman Mao Tse Tung (Chad Shelton, right) exchange greetings as Chou En Lai (Chen-Ye Yuan) looks on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


The role of Mao, who sings in metaphors and whose thoughts are constantly repeated by his three sycophantic secretaries (Buffy Baggott, Sarah Castle and Jennifer DeDominici), is assigned to high tenors with vocal heft.

Shelton filled the bill vocally, and showed fine acting instincts with a portrayal of an eccentric aging leader that rings true.

[Below: Mao (Chad Shelton, seated, second from left) insists on talking philosophy, with his words taken down by his secretaries (Jennifer DeDominici, Sarah Castle and Buffy Baggott), while Richard Nixon (Franco Pomponi, right) would much prefer to resolve diplomatic issues personally; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Three of the artists from 2012 San Francisco Opera production – the Chou En Lai, the Pat Nixon and the Henry Kissinger = assumed their same roles in this often quite different production.

Chen-Ye Yuan’s Chou En Lai 

Chinese baritone Chen-Ye Yuan repeated his role  of premier Chou En Lai, the historical personage who worked with Henry Kissinger to open diplomatic relations between the two enemy nations. Yuan portrayed Chou as a tired former warrior. His representation of China in the banquet toasts between the two nations is one of the opera’s most memorable arias.

The second act is to a great extent centered on the character of Pat Nixon, the most sympathetic character in the opera, and one who humanizes Richard Nixon in the several scenes of their intimate moments together.

Maria Kanyova, who has been singing the role since the production’s first appearance in 2004 (the production’s debut taking place at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis), shows insight and mastery in Pat Nixon’s extensive scene that includes the famous aria This is Prophetic!

[Below: Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


 Patrick Carfizzi’s Doctor Henry Kissinger

Patrick Carfizzi sings and acts the role as a boorish punk womanizer that librettist Goodman composer Adams and stage director James Robinson wrote, composed and staged. A fine artist, this role that he has done in important theaters, has become associated with him.

The role itself seems not to belong – at least as written – with an opera that finds character traits to praise and scowl at in the other characters.

One critic (Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times) suggested that the team that created the opera simply could not get to the essence of Kissinger’s character. I’m sure they did not, but am unconvinced that it was an inscrutable Kissinger made him a hard character to draw.

I have written in a previous review that Goodman, Adams and Peter Sellars, the original conceptualizer of the Nixon in China project were all based at Harvard University where Dr Kissinger was a tenured Harvard professor (albeit likely on leave for much of his career).

Perhaps it was an in-joke that some on the Harvard campus in the 1980s would have understood.  Maybe we’ll never know why it’s written as it is, but if there is ever to be a revision of “Nixon in China” (as we know that there is to be of Glass’ “Appomattox”), rewriting this part should be the first priority.

Kathleen Kim’s Madame Mao

For many fans of this opera, the rousing coloratura aria of Madame Mao (I am the Wife of Mao Tse Tung!) is the highlight of the show. Kim made it a positive blockbuster of a performance!

[Below: Kathleen Kim as Madame Mao Tse Tung; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


The 2004 production was directed by James Robinson with sets by Allan Moyer. The sets were provided rent-free to the San Diego Opera by the Opera Theater of Saint Louis as a contribution to the San Diego Opera’s rebirth after the company’s near-death experience in March, 2014.

Joseph Mechavich conducted the complex score. James Schuette designed the costumes. Charles Prestinari was chorus master for the opera’s demanding choruses.

Sean Curran deserves special praise for creating the many dances from the ballet sequences of the Revolutionary Theater to the gentle waltz of Pomponi’s Richard and Kanyova’s Pat.

The San Diego Opera once again proved its ability to present casts and productions worthy of opera capitals throughout the world.

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