Monday evening, the Japan America Theatre became the house that Adams filled. The Green Umbrella series brought in John Adams to conduct, Adams brought along the second act of "Nixon in China," and that much-publicized work brought in a near-capacity crowd.
That Adams and "Nixon in China" are hot now, we already knew. The evening also demonstrated, however, that Adams is a strong and purposeful conductor, in his own music and that of others.
Would that it had shown as much of the CalArts New Twentieth Century Players, only half of whom are current faculty or students. The mostly youthful band, though, nearly made eager energy suffice.
Adams began the evening with Stravinsky's "Ebony" Concerto, and followed that with Schoenberg's Opus 9 Chamber Symphony, in the original scoring. In both, he shaped lines and articulated form effectively, stressing forthright drive and lyrical balance.
The musicians of the Twentieth Century Players gave him a relatively tight, bright performance of the Concerto, with clarinetist William Powell only the first among several equals in solo skill and elan. In the Symphony, brightness became stridence at times in a fairly blunt, literal reading, despite Adams' busy ministrations.
In the "Nixon in China" excerpt--the first two scenes of Act II--there were patches of misintonation in the woodwinds and some ragged entrances and endings. There, however, sheer exuberance and vitality carried the flamboyant music along handily.
This is big, endlessly bustling, overtly theatrical, take-a-deep-breath-and-hang-on music, heard in its local premiere. Shorn of the staging, this portion of Adams' opera holds concert attention easily, and makes a compact, albeit unresolved, character drama.
These scenes focus on the wives, Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch'ing. Since we never see (or hear) Kissinger, his controversial relationship to the brutal villain of "The Red Detachment of Women" is irrelevant, and the here undanced ballet becomes an orchestra/chorus showpiece, with the scene dramatically important for what it reveals of Mrs. Nixon and Madame Mao.
Librettist Alice Goodman describes the opera as heroic, but the composer's spoken commentary Monday put an emphasis on satire, which seemed fulfilled in his music. Certainly there was much to chuckle over in the exaggerated naivete of Pat Nixon and the deliberately self-important spite of Chiang Ch'ing, and the early '60s girl-group style of a chorus given to the Red Women's Militia.
CarolAnn Page, the Pat Nixon of the Houston premiere, brought amplified sweetness and oblivious sincerity to her first scene raptures, delivering words and notes cleanly and clearly. Mary Rawcliffe sang Chiang Ch'ing as a dark alter ego, with amplified meanness and shrill nihilism.
Ronald Gerard strained a bit vocally as the Kissinger-cum-villain, and Edward Levy capably offered the minor, musically nondescript utterances of the President. Susan Judy, Elin Carlson and Lori Turner made a solid, appropriately faceless secretarial trio. Paul Vorwerk's UC Santa Cruz Chamber Singers projected smooth, rhythmically alert sound from the back of a very full stage.