Opera review: 'Nixon in China' at the Metropolitan Opera
NEW YORK — It is a cold, clear morning, a crowd has gathered and the air is full of static electricity. “The people are the heroes now,” the crowd chants.
We recognize such a scene immediately. Some patrons walking up to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, a cold afternoon, carried newspapers under their arms with pictures of heroic Tahrir Square protesters in Cairo celebrating the resignation of Hosni Mubarak.
But, no, these opera-goers had come for other “heroes,” for the Chinese who awaited the landing of the Spirit of ’76 on Feb. 21, 1972. Such are the people who sing of their accomplishments in the opening chorus of John Adams’ “Nixon in China.”
An opera that was belittled in 1987 by major New York critics -- as a CNN Opera of no lasting merit when Houston Grand Opera premiered it -- has clearly remained relevant. Reaching the Met for the first time, it is now hailed as a classic. Or, as Nixon sings in a toast to his hosts, another of the many prophetic lines in Alice Goodman’s brilliant libretto, “I opposed China. I was wrong.”
Of course, a Met staging, no matter how monumental, does not necessarily a classic make. The original Peter Sellars production, which the Met acquired, has made the rounds. The Brooklyn Academy of Music mounted it shortly after the Houston premiere. It also traveled to Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and it was broadcast by PBS (with Walter Cronkite as host). The Met's production is based on Sellars' revised staging of his original version created for English National Opera and which proved a hit with London audiences.
Still, there is something special about a “Nixon” sighting at the Met, where Mao’s “Little Red Book” can now be purchased as a souvenir in the company’s Lincoln Center gift shop. The huge house was full, and tens of thousands more around the world watched the Met’s high-definition transmission of Saturday’s performance. Goodman got that right too. “Telecommunications has broadcast your message into space,” Nixon sings. (An encore screening will be in movie theaters on March 2.)
Adams conducted. Sellars made a significantly belated company debut. James Maddalena, the first Nixon, returned to the role, now close to the age of the president when he made the trip to China. Historic doesn’t seem too strong an adjective for such a happening.
The Met’s huge stage lent grandeur to the opening, in which the nose of Air Force One drops out of the sky (to avoid the phallic implications of it rolling on), and the banquet scene that closes Act 1 with exhilarating toasts. But there were also balance problems. Adams calls for miking the singers, and that was uneven.
From the pit, though, Adams took advantage of the clarity possible with the spectacular Met Orchestra, emphasizing rhythmic correctness, almost like a Minimalist cold warrior admirably fighting for the cause of pulse, repetition and metrical shifts, even if sometimes the orchestra seemed to be counting more than feeling.
Many cold warriors from Nixon’s administration and member of the press who covered the China trip have been showing up at the Met (Saturday was the third performance), and some were scratching their heads. Adrianne Lobel’s sets and Dunya Ramicova’s costumes look the way everything looked. The scenes of Pat Nixon touring the countryside have a documentary ring. Choreographer Mark Morris retains many of the original steps of the ballet, “The Red Detachment of Women,” that the Nixons took in.
But opera is not journalism. We encounter the Nixons, the Maos and Chou En-lai not only in China but also in bed and in song. A curtain may close in the middle of a scene and a character is left alone, angst-ridden. This intense scale between large and small, private and public, can be shocking on the vast Met stage.
Characterizations have deepened and the opera has darkened over the years, some of it in reaction to revelations about the horrors of Mao’s reign that have come to light since the premiere. But the opera has always been less a moral statement than an examination of what drives powerful men. Insecurity drives them, and women drive them.
“Nixon” looks at China from Pat Nixon’s troubled eyes, seeing meaning where her husband sees policy, and brutally from Chiang Ch’ing’s. Janis Kelly gave a world-class performance as Pat Nixon, Kathleen Kim was a vocally dynamic Madame Mao.
Sellars treats the Chinese less sympathetically than he had at first, adding an edge to the philosophical Chou (Russell Braun) and making Mao (Robert Brubaker) not only inscrutable but creepily decrepit. Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink) is no longer quite so leeringingly Groucho-esque.
In the last act, when the main characters reflect on their lives in beds, Sellars has given the Maos raunchier sex and added a patina of death. Perhaps Mubarak’s nights are like this. The game is over, and now the torture begins; he must reflect.
The operatic Nixon is Dostoevskian, his demons a lifelong grapple. Maddelena struggles with some of the notes now but not the wondrous music. The Nixon in him is the essence of the man. We do well to pay attention.
— Mark Swed
Photo: James Maddalena, in center, as Nixon, flanked on his right by Russell Braun (Chou En-lai) and, on left, by Kathleen Kim (Chiang Ch'ing) and Janis Kelly (Pat). Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.