MET HD BROADCAST OF NIXON IN CHINA
Just to warn everybody, I have never before seen or heard John Adam’s Nixon in China, so unlike other commentators you may read, I have nothing to which to compare today’s performance. I do remember that when it first appeared at Houston Grand Opera in 1987 there was much guffawing about “CNN opera,” implying that the whole idea was pretty dumb, but time has proven that wrong. Twenty-three years later, after the much more recently composed Doctor Atomic, it reached the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, giving the work the status of a classic. This opera may mean more to those of my generation (born 1947) and older because we can remember the shock to the national psyche when in 1972, Richard Nixon, the ultimate anti-communist, broke the ice with China, still under the thumb of Mao tse-tung. (Excuse my transliteration. I have not mastered Pinyin.). Ping-pong diplomacy and the acupuncture craze soon followed.
Watching the Met HD broadcast may, in some ways, be the best way to see Nixon in China because like other operas composed by John Adams, the singers are amplified, something I dislike intensely, but given that you are hearing it in cinema sound anyhow, it probably makes no difference. On the other hand, one of my companions complained of too many close-ups, especially during the dance scenes.
But to be short, I liked it a lot, especially the brilliant second act with its “opera within an opera” and ballet. The first act is a bit static but ends with a great Adamesque “drinking chorus” partly to the words of a Chinese toast. The third act is mainly reminiscing, philosophizing, and pondering accomplishments, but contains some of the work’s most beautiful music with Chou-en-lai wondering if he really did good in his life.
Highlights to me include the intensely rhythmic score, the searing Madame Mao of Kathleen Kim, the moving Patricia Nixon of soprano Janis Kelly, the wonderfully lyric Russell Braun (San Diego’s Wolfram in Tannhauser) the exciting Mark Morris choreography, which included the rather bizarre scene of Richard Paul Fink (Nabucco here last year, and a San Diego Opera Ensemble alumnus) as Henry Kissinger playing the villain in Madame Mao’s revolutionary ballet. Unfortunately James Maddalena, as Nixon, who premiered the part in 1987, is very much over the hill vocally, but perhaps because I have not heard the role sung right, that did not detract much from my overall enjoyment. Robert Brubaker sang and acted the role of Mao to the hilt. As a history junky, I was also fascinated by the interview with former diplomat Winston Lord, who was present during the encounter portrayed in the first act between Nixon and Mao, and vouched for its overall accuracy, noting he could not tell if Mao was philosophizing or senile.
The ever colorful Peter Sellars, (who DOES do his hair!?), remarked that he had made changes in the staging after the memoirs of Mao’s doctor appeared, which accounts for the, uh, massage, rendered by a female Mao assistant in the last act.
An encore of this performance occurs March 2rd at 6:30 p.m. in one of several San Diego theaters. I highly recommend it to those who missed the original broadcast.