“Nixon in China” makes a belated, successful premiere at the Met

February 04, 2011
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

James Maddalena, Russell Braun and Janis Kelly in John Adams' "Nixon in China." Photo: Ken Howard.

When Air Force One landed on the Metropolitan Opera’s stage Wednesday night, carrying Richard M. Nixon and his entourage, it marked the arrival of a modern classic. Twenty-four years after its creation, John Adams’ Nixon in China finally landed at the heart of the music establishment, and the reception it received was a lot less frosty and tense than the one granted the 37th president of the United States back in February of 1972.

As it reunites the creative team behind the original Houston Grand Opera premiere 24 years ago – director Peter Sellars, set designer Adrianne Lobel, choreographer Mark Morris and the composer, now conducting  – it could have been an opportunity for a fresh take on a modern classic. The curious choice was, instead, to embalm the original vision and bathe it in a nostalgic glow. With each new production, Sellars cements the details of the hyper-realistic sets – elegantly arranged and with striking pops of color, it is true – to the point where the production itself is fast becoming an icon as impervious to change as the old dorm-room posters of Mao themselves.

Any Met production of Nixon would have been an overdue validation of the most important contemporary American opera in a generation. The 1972 encounter of Richard Nixon and the ailing Chinese dictator Mao Tse-tung was the diplomatic coup of its time, allowing light to filter through the hitherto largely impenetrable Bamboo Curtain for the first time. The work it inspired marked  a rapprochement of sorts in modern opera, too, bringing back not only lush orchestral colors and more naturalistic vocal lines, but also the idea of the heroic itself, of larger-than-life archetypal characters enacting a myth before our eyes: Mao, the frail revolutionary, Nixon, the impetuous optimist.

It was a Met debut for James Maddalena, too, who sang Nixon, the role he created in 1987. In the intervening years – and over the course of some 100 performances – he has approached the age Nixon was on that visit to China, and his portrayal of the 37th president is now flawless. Every gesture, the facial tics, the angle of the stooped back are perfectly calibrated. Vocally, unfortunately, Maddalena was in poor form on Wednesday night, a fact only exacerbated by the amplification of the singers’ voices requested by the composer. He regained some of his characteristic vibrancy toward the final act for a soul-searching scene with the First Lady.

Janis Kelly was a touching Pat Nixon, holding herself with the practiced poise of a politician’s wife and delivering both platitudes and poetic observations with a warm, sweet sound. Her monologue This is prophetic, in the second scene of Act II, was gripping in its simplicity, especially as it came after a scene that saw her trying to interact with a glass elephant, a hospital patient, a group of school children and a life-size plastic pig.

The figure of Henry Kissinger is granted no such moment, being reduced, in the hands of Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, to a buffo role. Richard Paul Fink made the most of it, from the self-satisfied preening on the airfield to his crotch-grabbing exit, through an opening in the giant poster of Mao’s face, in search of a toilet. His powerful, somewhat gravelly, bass-baritone also enlivened the role of the sadistic overseer in Madame Mao’s ballet.

The Chinese contingent was made up of a consistently strong line-up of voices. Robert Brubaker’s Mao Tse-tung brought a wide register of expressive and dynamic shadings to his mercurial pronouncements in the scene of the historic meeting with Nixon itself. Adams often pushes his voice to uncomfortable heights and the audible strain is an all-too rare hint at the Chairman’s other, real-life, excesses.

For most of the opera, Mao is shadowed by a trio of female secretaries, with dour facial expressions and drab uniforms who echo his every word in the robotic manner of someone rehearsing propaganda lines. As female operatic roles go, these must be among the more ungrateful, but Ginger Costa Jackson, Teresa S. Herold and Tamara Mumford took them on with impressive discipline and conviction.

Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing, was sung by Kathleen Kim who engaged in robotic singing of a different kind last season as Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann’s Tales. Here, she mastered the acrobatic vocal lines of I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung with precision and chilling power. In the scene in which she directs The Red Detachment of Women for the benefit of the American visitors (gracefully choreographed by Mark Morris) she prowls the stage like a protean Tiger Mom, bullying the young dancers into an orgy of class violence. The final act finds her in a more pliable feline mode as she tries to reconnect with her estranged husband.

The most outstanding performance was that of Russell Braun’s Chou En-lai, his luminous baritone inflecting the figure of the Chinese premier with humanity and flashes of moral self-awareness. Braun has a way of digging for the emotional core of every phrase he sings, as well as the flexibility to move fluidly between different expressive registers.

The Met chorus dealt admirably with the unfamiliar musical idiom, as did the orchestra, infiltrated as it was by a quartet of saxophones and an electronic keyboard. At times one would have wished for more elasticity of tempo and phrasing –  one could virtually hear the musicians frantically counting under their breath through the interminable repeated bars.

There was an air of self-congratulation about the premiere on Wednesday night, which neatly coincided with the Chinese New Year and followed hard on the heels of Prime Minister Hu’s visit to Washington. During the curtain call, Adams made a show of applauding the members of the audience, as if praising their acceptance of what was once a shocking work of art.

But the truth is as political operas go, there was less shock value to Nixon than to the final scene of the Met’s recent Boris Godunov, which managed to humanize a tyrant without idealizing his victims. What’s “challenging” about Nixon is what’s left out – the millions of famine victims, say, or the brutal machinery of the penal labor camps, the Laogai. The past 24 years have seen no shortage of fresh documentation on any of these. But the only new revelations Morris and Sellars spoke of at a pre-premiere panel conference, and which they held up as evidence of their continued and thorough examination of their opera’s subject, were of Mao’s hemorrhoids and tooth decay.

Nixon in China runs through Feb. 19. http://www.metoperafamily.org//metopera/season/production.aspx?id=11015&hpbucketTomorrow

One Response to ““Nixon in China” makes a belated, successful premiere at the Met”

  1. Posted Feb 04, 2011 at 8:55 am by Eugene Neiman

    Thank you for your honest call. I listened to this on Met Opera radio. Perhaps seeing this in the HD broadcast will be a different experience. While “Q2” music can be quite interesting, even ingenious, these works (e.g. Adam’s orchestral excerpts of “Nixon”) are usually 5-10 minutes. Unfortunately Adam’s vocabulary of repetition, stretched out for hours, I found monotenous. What a long evening for the Met orchestra! What poor singing! And what an embarassing “Met house organ” review of the performance in the NYT! I wish for something from the strong Finnish composers (such as Einojuhani Rautavaara) or David Lang or even a revival of Blomdahl’s “Aniara”.