John Adams almost 25 year old opera, Nixon in China, finally made it to the Met. It was broadcast today on the Met’s radio and HD networks. The composer conducted and the same director of its premiere presided – Peter Sellars. I saw this opera some time ago. This version is a little raunchier than I remember what with humping, genital groping, and a “MFer” from Madame Mao. Mr Sellars also directed the video production so we can blame him for the opacity of much of the action. If you knew nothing about this opera before viewing it on the giant screen you might well find its plot an obscure allegory.
Briefly, Nixon lands in China, meets with a probably demented Mao, and goes to a banquet. That’s the first act. In the second act Pat Nixon takes a tour. The Nixons attend a ballet that they get caught up in. In the final act all the character are in their bedrooms (a row of beds) where they muse on the past. End of opera. There’s a lot more than I just described some of it interesting and a lot that’s soporific. Whether this work will outlive the production team that’s kept it performed over the past quarter of a century is uncertain. My guess is that it will disappear with them. Consider Benjamin Britten a far greater composer than Adams. He wrote 15 operas only one of which, Peter Grimes, is firmly in the standard repertoire, though several are on its fringe.
The libretto by Alice Goodman treats all the characters in the piece seriously with the glaring exception of Henry Kissinger whose X-rated cartoon depiction is so out of keeping with the rest of the action that it can only be considered the result of sophomoric malice. This goofy portrayal is even more jarring when contrasted with the sympathetic presentation of former President Nixon. On the whole, I could see little point to the series of episodes that bore little resemblance to what really happened during Nixon’s visit to China or to any general point of human existence. It would take genius of a higher level than that possessed by Adams to give this disjointed story meaning.
The score is almost wholly a derivative of Philip Glass. Three acts of repetitive pulsating rhythms is likely to narcotize a listener. Mr Adam’s latter operas, this was his first, show more originality.
The title role was sung by its creator James Maddalena who has made a career out of singing the role. Unfortunately there’s little left of his voice. Still he brought out all the humanity built into the role. Janis Kelly’s impersonation of Pat Nixon was perfect and she still has a lot of voice left though she almost as old as Maddalena. She was so good that the viewer might think that the Met had reincarnated Mrs Nixon along with an implanted operatic voice.
Tenor Robert Brubaker was convincing as the doddering Mao. Soprano Kathleen Kim (Madame Mao) has a very high aria at the end of the second out which she screeched more than sang. Baritone Russell Braun sang the role of the dying Chinese premier Chou En-lai. He gave an affecting reading of the aria that closes the opera. Richard Paul Fink was given the impossible task of portraying Henry Kissinger. This role could be completely removed from the opera without any negative effect. In fact, it would be better if it were removed.
The chorus has a prominent role in this opera. Of course, the Met’s ensemble handled its part with ease. There are several dances in the work. The choreography was directed by Mark Morris who managed the dances at first performance of the work. Haruno Yamazaki and Kanji Segawa brilliantly realized Morris’s steps.
Maestro Adams conducted today’s performance. I suspect that he got everything out of his score and did as good a job as a full time leader would have. The singers were all miked, by order of the composer, so I guess they sounded the same in the hall as they did in the remote locations. Adrianne Lobel’s sets were resized to fit the Met’s acromegalic stage. They worked quite well.
Back to Sellars video direction. I think it was the worst yet seen in the Met’s HD series. This is surprising as he staged the work in the house. The problem was the closeups. They’re irresistible in this medium, but even by the usual standard they were abused. The opera has numerous scenes, especially the last one, where multiple characters are singing simultaneously or where their dialogue overlaps. Showing a close up of one character when another was singing was confusing and poorly conceived.
In summary, a good performance of an interesting work that most viewers will likely never see again.
I plan on attending the Encore performance in HD. However, I did see the final dress rehearsal and have listened to it twice on Sirius. I agree with you regarding the portrayal of Kissinger which was really jarring. I also didn’t care for Ms. Kim’s voice. But I strongly disagree that the opera will fade into obscurity. The combination of Ms. Goodman’s libretto, the rythmically compelling score, the choreograpy (best dancing I’ve seen in an opera) and the staging (Air Force One dropping down on the Met stage) made for a very enjoyable experience. The questions it raises such as Chou’s final aria asking “has anything we’ve done been good” and Nixon’s comment upon deplaning in Bejing that “news has a kind of mystery” lead to reexaming history and really the mystery and goodness of one’s own life. Isn’t that what the best art is supposed to do? I found the opera fascinating and am still reflecting on it.