When John Adams’ “Nixon in China” was first heard at a Herbst Theatre workshop 25 years ago, the repetitive, pulsing music seemed similar to the worst of Philip Glass and Steve Reich; audience and critical response to the subsequent world premiere was similar to mine.
Mea culpa: At the long-delayed San Francisco Opera premiere of “Nixon in China” Friday at the War Memorial Opera House, the orchestra played an exciting, rich, memorable score with thrilling harmonic resolutions — invoking, but not copying, Wagner, Massenet and Puccini.
Conceived by Peter Sellars, who directed many productions, with a poetic libretto by Alice Goodman, the opera’s score hasn’t changed much in decades, but our hearing has, catching up with, and going deeper, into a modern masterpiece.
Under Lawrence Renes’ baton, the orchestra played as if possessed. Heroic, enduring strings and woodwinds made a convincing case for the music. Renes, in his local debut, conveyed power and authority the composer himself hasn’t always demonstrated.
Ian Robertson’s chorus sang the demanding music with strength. Stretched the length of the stage, the performers sang as one, with diction making supertitles redundant.
Debuting Canadian director Michael Cavanagh’s work is superior to Sellars’ original production. “Nixon” is more a triple bill than a three-act opera, each act complete in itself, with its own style. Instead of fighting the structure, Cavanagh realized each segment fully, assisted by Erhard Rom’s spectacular sets.
“Nixon” opens with the 1972 “Aida”-size arrival of Air Force One in China, and then goes on to a banquet scene.
The second act is a feverish, surprisingly accurate recreation of “Red Detachment of Women,” the 1964 ballet famed for its performance during President Richard Nixon’s 1970s visit to China. In this production, determined dancers did well with Wen Wei Wang’s anguished choreography.
The third act, a chamber opera, features the main characters reminiscing about their pasts; the opera ends on an ambiguous, haunting note.
While other productions may have boasted more outstanding individual performances, this “Nixon” has the strongest overall cast.
Brian Mulligan’s Nixon was vocally, dramatically and comically ideal. Maria Kanyova was an admirable Pat Nixon. Simon O’Neill as Mao Tse-tung, Chen-Ye Yuan as Chou En-lai and Patrick Carfizzi as Henry Kissinger were solid soloists.
As secretaries, the excellent Ginger Costa-Jackson, Buffy Baggott and Nicole Birkland sadly didn’t get the chance to be heard solo.
The evening’s sensation was Hye Jung Lee as Mao’s wife. The tiny 2010 Merola Program singer blew down the house with her huge, commanding voice and presence.
Nixon in China
Presented by the San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. June 14, July 3; 2 p.m. June 17; 8 p.m. June 22, June 26, June 30
Tickets: $21 to $330
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com