PARIS | After spending decades portraying generals’ wives, a countess and a courtesan, Renée Fleming walked gingerly onto the stage of the Bastille Opera in a blond 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 night 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 symbolizing both 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, a 64-year-old 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, a 67-year-old 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 high school senior 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 intermission, 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.
Fleming was making her Santa Fe Opera debut on a rainy night in August 2019 when company artistic director Alexander Neef approached her with an idea.
“He said, `I’m going to Paris and I want you to come for the first three of my seasons,’” Fleming recalled Neef saying of his job starting in 2021-22. “I was sort of shocked and said, `Well, let me see what I can think of that I could sing.’”
Carrasco was living in Rome in 2020 and rushed to see the monument Ara Pacis Augustae after an impending pandemic closure was announced. While walking in, she received a call from Neef asking her to stage “Nixon.”
“I thought it was a sign,” Carrasco said
She had a flash to a childhood memory of seeing “From Mao to Mozart,” a film with violinist Isaac Stern that won the 1981 Academy Award for best documentary feature. A segment stuck in her head in which Stern gives a master class and tells a student to swing her instrument while playing as if swinging a ping-pong paddle.
“Ping-pong is good because it’s like a terrain divided in two, like the Cold War, an Iron Curtain in-between,” Carrasco said. “It’s a winner-loser situation, and I thought it was an interesting metaphor for the world. And Ping-Pong is a very beautiful choreographic for a visual. And the tiktok, tiktok, tiktok of the ping-pong ball reminded me of many places where the music is very percussive. And then, of course, there was Ping-Pong Diplomacy.”
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 through April 16, and the April 7 show will be streamed in France and aired later on Medici and Mezzo.
Carrasco splits the stage in two levels early on, scenes of diplomacy on top and torture on the bottom.
Kissinger plays table tennis against Chou, each dressed like a wrestler entering a ring. Chou wins the match 69-1 — China repeatedly cheats by not crediting Kissinger with points he won. Carrasco had tried 49-3 during a rehearsal, using the numbers for the French constitution article that allowed the retirement age to be lowered without French Assembly approval.
A clip of the Stern film is shown between the second and third acts.
Fleming prepared by speaking with former Nixon aide Frank Gannon and reading Will Swift’s “Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage.”
“I didn’t know he was funny. I never would have guessed that,” Fleming said. “I didn’t know anything about her. So all of this material is really interesting. She was fiercely protective of him and of her children.”