Premiere of Nixon in China at the Met
February 04, 2011
The Metropolitan's production of John Adams' Nixon in China opened February 2. Here is the Unbiased Opinionator's account. The Opera Tattler may write about the February 12 performance.
* Notes *
Once derided as a "CNN Opera," an opera taking its theme from contemporary news flashes, and thus lacking in substance, "Nixon in China" has achieved a permanent place in the standard operatic repertory. Often incorrectly described as a "minimalist" opera, the score has many moments of intense lyricism and almost Wagnerian sweep.
The Met's production is a virtual duplication of the 1987 Houston world premiere. Set design, including the famous arrival of "The Spirit of '76" (as the Nixon administration christened Air Force One), direction by Peter Sellars, Mark Morris' splendid Act II choreography, costumes and blocking were identical to the world premiere, and held up very well in the cavernous Met auditorium. James Maddelena, who created the part of Nixon in the first production of the opera, sang Nixon in the Met production. A bright red curtain was substituted for the Met's usual gold brocade.
The composer himself conducted. He was greeted by loud applause and clearly had the propulsive, complex score under tight control.
This was clearly a big event, preceded by large media build-up and attended by President Nixon's daughter, Patricia, her husband Edward Cox and their son. I am happy to report that the evening exceeded the expectations which the hype preceding an event of this high profile often creates.
As in other operas with an historical backdrop, Verdi's Don Carlo, and Masked Ball for instance, the opera probes the thoughts and emotions of principal players in an important moment in history. In this case it was President Nixon's path-breaking trip to China in 1972, the first attempt at creating politic and military détente with the "Middle Kingdom" after a prolonged and geo-politically dangerous lack of contact.
The opera succeeds in capturing the essence of President Nixon, who was clearly aware of the enormous media attention the trip received. His opening aria, with its propulsive repetition of the words "History" and "News," shows Nixon the politician, eager for favorable publicity before his bid for reelection. His final duet with Pat, with his reminiscences about his experiences in World War II, shows the human, vulnerable aspect of this complex human being, much maligned at the time of his resignation and now in the process of rehabilitation and recognition for his accomplishments as a statesman and as President.
The role of First Lady Pat Nixon is the emotional and musical epicenter of the evening. She is portrayed highly sympathetically and her great aria: "This is Prophetic!" was beautifully sung by soprano Janis Kelly. Her closing lines "Bless this Union...May it Remain Inviolate" was intensely moving. One audience member broke out in enthusiastic solo applause, and one wondered if it were for the music, or for the plea that the nation remain unshattered by political division, a sentiment clearly relevant to the American political scene today.
Henry Kissinger fared poorly. He was cast as a stiff buffoon, and acts the part of the randy landlord (a complete departure from the historical reality of the occasion) in Madame Mao's ballet The Red Detachment of Women (brilliantly choreographed by Mark Morris and executed with astonishing energy and precision by the Met corps de ballet), which was performed for the Nixons and their entourage. Richard Paul Fink made the most of the role.
James Maddalena's performance was that of a singer whose best days are clearly behind him. He had evident vocal problems, especially in his first scene, and sang with overly darkened diction and a hooty, wobbly vocal quality. The principals in most of the opera were heavily amplified, and the amplification did not serve Mr. Maddalena well, with his audible cracking and throat-clearing. Although he acted the part well, capturing some of Nixon's physical stiffness, his dramatic achievement could not compensate for his inadequate vocalism.
Robert Brubaker presented an astonishingly well-sung Mao, which is written in an impossibly high range, and he captured the decrepitude of the aged yet iron-willed leader very effectively. Another stand-out was Russell Braun's performance as Chou En Lai, to which he brought nuanced and expressive singing. Chou En Lai in historical fact was an exceptionally cultivated and politically savvy leader. Denied treatment for bladder cancer by Mao's malignant wife Chiang Ch'ing (sung with great virtuosity by soprano Kathleen Kim), his final rumination ("How much of what we did was good?) was extremely effective and the capacity Met audience held its breath momentarily before delivering a thundering ovation.
* Tattling *
Two young lovebirds seated before me irritated my neighbor to the point where she repeatedly poked the backs of their seats to stop their blocking of her line of sight. Otherwise, the audience sat in rapt, attentive silence.