The Rape of Lucretia/Nixon in China

The back-to-back scheduling of these two operas provides an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast the styles of two contemporary composers and their use of dramatic structure to further their story, both political in nature.

(Left to right): Brian Mulligan as Tarquinius and Phyllis Pancella as Lucretia
(L to R): Brian Mulligan as Tarquinius
and Phyllis Pancella as Lucretia
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia recounts an actual event in Rome 500 B.C.E., when the Tarquinius, son of the city's foreign monarch Tarquinius Superbus, is goaded by a fellow soldier into testing the faithfulness of the fair and chaste Lucretia, the wife of their compatriot Collatinus.

Curiously, the chorus for the tale consists of a male and female counterparts, who interpret the pagan story through the lens of Christian dogma, essentially framing the pagan Lucretia as a Christian saint (—though Roman Catholic dogma would limit her to Limbo, Britten's religious views were eclectic). Nevertheless, the dramatic arc follows classic tragic form and delivers a catharsis worthy of the effort.

John Adams' Nixon in China recounts an actual event in China in 1972, when President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Beijing and met with Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Prime Minister Chou En-lai following the U.S.A.'s "recognition" the world's most populous nation.

Unfortunately, Adams and librettist, Alice Goodman, have neither the historical perspective nor political insight to interpret this famous event, providing no dramatic arc for the story other than pedestrian psychological interpretations of the key players, transparent agit-prop, and historical distortions. For example, the libretto has the Americans mentioning Chiang Kai-shek to Mao, and the Chairman responding that he knew Chaing. In fact, Mao knew him very well: Chiang turned traitor (on members of his own party) and killed tens of thousands of Mao's communist comrades in Shanghai in 1927, but from the innocent remarks, we would have thought they were buddies. This occurs in the opera before we see Mao portrayed as a doddering, senile 79 year-old man.

(Left to right): Phyllis Pancella as Lucretia and Arthur Woodley as Collatinus
(L to R): Phyllis Pancella as Lucretia
and Arthur Woodley as Collatinus
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Both compositions fall under the heading of contemporary classical minimalism, only occasionally rising to melody, with the music generally providing emotional shading as sound tracks provide atmospherics for film—Lucretia carried along by its solid dramatic structure and simple yet effective set, while Nixon relies on flash (a dozen period TVs carrying newsreel footage, an energetic Chinese dance number, and a few melodic measures sprinkeled here and there).

The voices are stellar in both productions, yet remain, with rare exception, confined to the narrow dynamic typical of the minmalist genre. Those enured to the monochromatic drone of post-industrial society will find solace in this insistently repetitive form that begs comparison to rap music, but for intellectuals, with full orchestration and ebbing glandular irregularities.

Despite the challenging scores, Lucretia delivers a powerful lesson that served as an impetus to bring down the Roman monarchy and create a republic, while Nixon serves only aggrandize a liar, cheat, and murderer. It's a shame that Adams let the makings of a tragedy slip through his grasp.

We could have been treated to Tricky Dick's friends (Maurice Stans, Secretary of Agriculture, et al.) cornering the wheat market before the diplomatic shift was announced, then making a killing selling the commodity futures, for which they were later indicted and found guilty. Even a conclusion with the later Nixon getting caught for the least of his crimes (Watergate) would have been a more compelling ending than seeing Pat Nixon delusional over an innocuous Chinese morality play or the principals in their bath robes following a long day of negotiations, photo ops, and banqueting.

Richard Nixon's actual visit to China was indeed momentous, as current world economic and political forces clearly indicate, particulary in the way it underscored the sublimation of military battle to marketplace competition among the major powers, but Nixon in China provides no context for that event, and with no catharsis, too, Qui bono?

Central City Opera's production of The Rape of Lucretia runs through June 20th. Call 303-292-6700

Opera Colorado's production of Nixon in China has completed its run.

Bob Bows


Current Reviews | Home | Webmaster