After spending decades portraying generals’ wives, a countess and a courtesan, Renee Fleming walked gingerly on to the stage of the Bastille Opera in a blonde wig, red coat and black gloves to depict Pat Nixon, former first lady of the United States.
John Adams’ Nixon In China, a 1987 work among the most acclaimed American operas, received its Paris Opera premiere on Saturday to eight minutes of applause following a revelatory production by Argentine director Valentina Carrasco that replaced literalism with metaphor.
The lasting images were of a dark American eagle pitted against a bright red Chinese dragon and of ping-pong tables symbolising diplomacy and the quest for superiority.
“You really have to be in your mid-60s to even remember this other than as it’s something that you learn about in school,” said Fleming, 64, a soprano who bid farewell to the standard repertory six years ago.
“I’m sorry, but in the context of what’s going on now, Watergate doesn’t seem quite as horrific as it did at the time.”
Thomas Hampson, 67, an American baritone, starred as president Richard Nixon, complete with hunched shoulders and a sweaty face he repeatedly dabbed with a white handkerchief.
Hampson broke out Nixon’s stiff V-for-victory motion with arms outstretched during curtain calls.
Hampson was a secondary school pupil in Spangle, Washington, when Nixon made the seven-day trip to China in 1972, the first visit by an American president following the 1949 communist revolution.
“The whole effort of an American president to just simply shake hands across the globe was extremely impressive,” Hampson said.
“Nixon will always and forever be Watergate. But there are parts of the presidency of Richard Nixon and parts of Richard Nixon that we just have to parse out and respect for what it is.”
Adams, now 76, made the trip from his California home and signed autographs during the interval, then joined the curtain calls. He wrote the opera with librettist Alice Goodman.
“They are larger-than-life characters. They created these personae, as most politicians do, but between Mao and Kissinger and Madam Mao and Nixon, they’re kind of political archetypes and I think that just captures the public imagination,” he said.
Nixon launched at the Houston Grand Opera with realistic sets by Peter Sellars that were reproduced for the 2011 Metropolitan Opera premiere.
The Paris Opera became the first major European house to stage it, and Nixon debuts at Madrid’s Teatro Real on April 17 in a John Fulljames staging that first appeared at the Royal Danish Opera in 2019.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts a strong cast that includes Xiaomeng Zhang as Chou En-lai, Joshua Bloom as Henry Kissinger, John Matthew Myers as Mao Tse-Tung and Kathleen Kim as Madame Mao.
There are seven more performances until April 16, and the April 7 show will be streamed in France and aired later on Medici and Mezzo.
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