Next time you catch some politician flapping his tongue, just imagine his hyperbole set to an aria. That's what American composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman did with their 1987 opera Nixon in China, now being presented by Minnesota Opera. While there aren't any bold political statements being made, Nixon paints the former president, Chairman Mao, Henry Kissinger, and--especially--the Chinese and American first ladies with broad and liberal strokes. Their media personas are magnified; they seem, perhaps, too impressed with themselves. Nixon's trip comes off as a debauchery.
The first act gets sunk by ho-hum photo ops and bald goodwill gestures--and that's only compounded by a simple score that's listenable but not particularly exciting. (There's little opportunity for flashy singing.) Still, the production is visually fascinating thanks to a dozen 1970s TVs that mix vintage footage from the trip and a chorus casting long shadows against a giant red wall. The show's also funny--not rip-roaringly hilarious, but amusing in a slight and crooked way. Baritone Carlos Archuleta has Nixon's toothy grin. Henry Kissinger (played by Andrew Wilkowske) is stuck to his briefcase. A champagne toast dissolves into an East-meets-West conga line. This is the sort of fun Tricky Dicky could appreciate!
The production's high point is Act Two, Scene Two: Madame Mao brings the Nixons to the Peking Opera. There, they see a ballet opera called The Red Detachment of Women, which Adams based on a real show produced by Madame Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Although Madame's opera spoon-fed nationalism, it was hugely popular in its day thanks to its catchy music and Technicolor spectacle. In this production, too, the choreography at the Peking Opera is expressive and fun; the music picks up a beat. (Here's a clever aside: Pat Nixon notices that the show's bad guy bears an uncanny resemblance to Kissinger. Humph!) Some folks might think it's a bummer that Nixon's energy spikes at a reference to communist propaganda, but this scene, truly, forgives the production all other moments of tedium--it's that good.
And it gets even better. Helen Todd, playing the Uzi-wielding Madame Mao, interrupts for an operatic ode to the communist social order; it's called "Whip her to death." Todd nails her aria! She unpacks high notes we thought this production didn't have! The rest of the cast isn't singing with such gusto, in part relative to Adams's sparse and sleepy arrangements, but Todd's voice--finally--has the chops to cut past the orchestra.