Archive for February, 2011

Nixon in China in Toronto

February 13, 2011
My lingering suspicion about the American opera had been blown away after seeing and hearing “Nixon in China” in Toronto on 9 February 2011. The success of this piece measures in equal shares the exceptional libretto by Alice Goodman, and music by John Adams, which envelops, elevates and complements it. This libretto is not a surveyor’s map of the ideological differences between the two countries and the psychological similarities of their respective leaders. Instead, it is a piece of self-standing poetry which abounds in proverbial one-liners capable of carrying richer contents than any narrative. A pity that Alice Goodman’s text was not included in the programme. To remedy this loss, here you can find more about the unusual career of the librettist and some quotes from this remarkable text.

To stimulate interest in this masterpiece let me share a few verses I jotted down: “At the edge of the Rubicon men don’t go fishing” or “I squeezed my paycheque till it screamed” or “Nothing can change without discipline”.

The Toronto production team brilliantly recognized the importance of television in this historical event. People will remember Nixon’s visit to China as they saw it on television.  A dozen or so TV sets in the period design, featuring wooden boxes with the control panel to the side, displayed the muted documentary materials as they were silently lifted and shifted as the stage changes required.

The opening scene begins with the collective practice of Tai-Chi awaiting the arrival of Nixon in Peking while the chorus celebrates the values and victories of communism. Although the libretto suggests indoor and outdoor scenes, the changes to the stage were reduced to a minimum and merely hinted at, which kept the focus on the invisible plane where the characters experience themselves and self-reflect, rather than interact with each other.  

The two singers were outstanding in their roles. Mr. Adrian Thompson as Mao Tse-tung delivered Ms. Goodman’s poetry with voluptuously phrased and vibrant expressiveness. Mr. Thompson, an English tenor, now teaches in the same school where he received his training.

Ms. Marisol Montalvo as Chairman Mao’s wife, Chian Ch’ing, brought up a character of powerful and subdued histrionic quality. Ms. Montalvo has a mighty and rich voice that fills the auditorium with surprising ease, given her fragile-looking appearance. Ms. Montalvo acted out her role with the perfect measure of exaggeration and poise which would be a challenge for any professional actor to accomplish. No wonder her engagements often include an array of opera stages throughout Europe. We were fortunate to have an opportunity to hear Mr. Thompson and Ms. Montalvo in Toronto for the first time.


Robert Orth as Richard Nixon and Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon


To infuse with life the role of Chou En-lai was perhaps the most difficult challenge of this opera. Mr. Chen-Ye Yan has performed this role with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. He portrayed the Chinese Prime Minister as a dignified and devoted statesman who was dying of cancer at the time when this historic visit took place.

With the aid of a briefcase and purple silk underwear the character of Henry Kissinger was turned into a parody of an administrator overwhelmed by sensual offerings. The American bass-baritone, Thomas Hammons, hurried and scurried around Nixon fulfilling his administrative role with secretarial deference and a sense of self-deprecating humour, which may not hold with historical truth.

Ms. Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon and Mr. Robert Orth as Richard Nixon appeared already in this production, which was first staged in St. Louis in 2004.

The elusive quality that theatre and opera create beyond the sounds and movements is especially palpable in the unfolding of Act III. Before retiring for the night each of the main characters has a contemplative moment reflecting upon personal memories.

A special credit goes for the well-studied choreography of Seán Curran with many clever solutions that give this successful production a touch of delicate flavour.


Marisol Montalvo as Madam Mao

The Magic Flute, Disney-style

February 3, 2011

Isabel Bayrakdarian as Pamina and Michael Schade as Tamino

On February 1, 2011, I watched a production of the Canadian Opera Company’s  Magic Flute.  Mozart completed this opera shortly before he died at the age of 35. It has been 18 years since the last mainstage Canadian Opera Company performance of the Magic Flute, and 6 years since the last performance by the COC’s Ensemble Studio. 

The combination of comic and dramatic elements along the story-line, which reaches into the spiritual and metaphysical realm, presents a challenge in the staging of this opera. Which side will prevail, what aspect of the story will take a central part depends on the layer of the story followed by the production team.

The focus of this Magic Flute is on the comic and fairy-tale sides. It is tailored for light enjoyment and visual amusement, and is well suited for the younger audience.  Esoteric elements were inevitably neglected since the main thrust was to please the senses and produce an enchanting effect, which was successfully accomplished. It brings only warm and fuzzy feelings and occasional laughs. This production will not be remembered for anything groundbreaking or revolutionary. 

The design of Tamino’s and Pamina’s costumes draws inspiration from Disney’s  fairy-tale images. Pamina wears a pink dress with matching pink shoes as  we see in animated fairy-tale movies. Tamino is dressed in white with a blue overcoat, both in neon-bright colours.

The second act would look even better had it been staged as a show on ice. The trials in Sarastro’s temple were a parade of glitter and pixie dust. If the artistic advice of Jeff Koons was sought, he would not allow the final scene of the second act to go ahead without the image of the legendary castle of Ludwig the Second, the last King of Bavaria, being projected in the background with a rainbow over it. Understandably the Disney copyright obstacles would impede such a project and hence this Magic Flute comes out deprived of its last coating of sugar.   

The director’s notes (Diane Paulus) for this production instruct us that this is a play-within-a-play in the first act, which is set in the period when the Magic Flute was first performed. The second act takes place in a labyrinthine garden where the spectators and performers from Act One go through the actual experience of trial and transformation.

The conductor Johannes Debus usually brings out the crispness and edge from the orchestra. This time it was not the case and I missed it. This opera commands resoluteness, but the mellow floating sound with the peaks clipped out may be a purposeful choice consistent with this particular staging.  

The Russian baritone, Rodion Pogossov, as Papageno acted his role with a charming lightness and enthusiasm. Isabel Bayrakdarian as Pamina was equal to her reputation. Aline Kutan as The Queen of the Night projected her icy, spiky F’s right underneath my skin, resulting in the experience of large patches of goosebumps.  Recitatives were on occasion sluggish and lacking in vigour.   

Betty Waynne Allison, Wallis Giunta and Lauren Segal, the three ladies-in-waiting, representing voices from another sphere, were vocally exceptional. A smashing visual point was made with their outfits resembling the fashion of a not so spiritual secret society on the rise – the bikers.      

The spiritual transformation, growth out of deceptive appearance, liberation from fear and pursuit of truth, love and justice is what this opera is about. The fairy tale and comedy elements are merely ancillary embellishments. I have yet to see the Magic Flute in which Tamino, Pamina, Papageno and Papagena are but different sides of one personality. The only production that managed to tie together this complicated libretto was Ingmar Bergman’s filming of this opera. It is available on DVD and any Magic Flute lover should see it to taste the difference.