Adams: Nixon in China

Live Telecast from the Metropolitan Opera

20 February 2011 3.5 stars

Nixon Nixon in China opens with Air Force One making its historic descent into Beijing. Once the Presidential party disembarks and the singing begins, it soon becomes apparent that the opera's libretto is still up in the clouds.

For all the craft and intellectual sheen in Alice Goodman's symbolic poetry, its clever verses set in rhymed, metered couplets, I have to wonder whether a simpler and more lucid libretto might have done more to breathe real-life anima into the familiar Sino-American figures in this story.

As it stands, characters in Nixon in China deliver their lines through a dense fog of metaphors, lofty imagery and enigmas, eschewing clarity for verbal esotericism better suited perhaps to academes than audiences. Hey, I grew up during the Nixon era – and I can tell you that the man was not all that difficult to understand. And I never heard him speak in metric verse.

The story is constructed around Nixon's historic visit to Mao Tse-tung's China on February 21, 1972. As you might imagine, the stage action is rather muted – banquet toasts, battles of words in Chairman's Mao's library and a Cultural Revolution-era propaganda dance number ("The Red Detachment of Women," handsomely choreographed by Mark Morris). Not fodder for great adventure, certainly, but sufficient nevertheless to fuel a drama based upon a character study of the six principals: the Nixons, the Tse-tungs, Henry Kissinger and Chou En-lai.

This doesn't quite happen in the current Peter Sellars's production of Nixon in China – a reworking of the 2006 English National Opera production that has worked its way to the Met from its humble premiere some 24 years ago at Houston Grand Opera. In place of character delineation we get an episodic patchwork of dreamy, meditative vignettes that reveals little of what makes these complicated characters tick. Indeed, we have difficulty learning anything deeper from these iconic figures than what the glossy covers of Life, Look and Time magazines had served up almost four decades ago.

Whatever its dramatic shortcomings, Nixon in China is not lacking in suitable music: John Adams's score is easy on the ears and stylistically straightforward – a musical cocktail comprising roughly three parts minimalism and one part jazz, with a few dashes of late-German Romanticism. Shaken, not stirred.

Adams never strays far from minimalist orthodoxy in this work, invoking such devices as the repetitive, stuttering-staccato rhythmic patterns in Nixon's "News aria," and the rhythmic vitality of the second-act ballet (a divertissement in the spirit of a Lully tragédie lyrique) that shifts into high-gear with driving, two-against-three metric propulsion. But while Adams's music may at times be rough and disjointed (his melodies can sound as if sliced into short phrases with a dull, serrated knife), there's much subtlety beneath the surface here as well, and far greater depth and craft than you'll find in Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach, written 11 years earlier.

NixonThe opening scene is especially engaging. Adams heralds the arrival of Air Force One with a steady building of ostinato patterns build from overlapping, ascending minor scales. Soon the winds sound a syncopated counterpoint to the rising scales, turning the music into a passacaglia (the shimmering instrumental timbres, set over slow harmonic motion, is reminiscent of the lengthy opening E-flat chord that opens Wagner's Das Rheingold). Adams's writing for the voices, like Goodman's libretto, is difficult and challenging – with staccato-like, jagged phrases that rarely blossom into conventional phrases and that often involve wide-leaps of fifths and octaves that test the dexterity, and the stamina, of the singers.

In both looks and mannerisms, James Maddalena (note the widow's peaks and shifty eyes) captures the familiar image of Richard Nixon in convincing fashion. So compelling is the physical resemblance, one is (almost) willing to ignore Maddalena's shaky baritone – which grew increasingly hoarse as Saturday's performance wore on. Still, it's no exaggeration to say that Maddalena has it all down pat (no disrespect to Mrs. Nixon intended). He "owns" this part, and I cannot imagine anyone better equipped to drum up paranoia in the first-act number, "We live in uncertain times/Who are our friends/Who are our enemies?"

Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon was entirely persuasive as the steadfast ("I don't daydream and I don't look back") and apolitical wife of the President, and she was indefatigable in her vocal agility. Kelly, who like Maddalena looked the part she played, navigated the wide-intervallic leaps and pernicious tessitura in the lengthy second-act numbers with resolve. During her "I come from a poor family," sung to Chinese school children, one had to wonder whether the First Lady would have led a much happier life as a schoolteacher. Compassionate, sincere and introspective, Pat Nixon is arguably the most complex and three-dimensional of the story's six principal characters.

In his fascinating Library scene (First Act, Scene 2), Robert Brubaker in the heldentenor role of Mao Tse-tung handled Adams's wild leaps into the high register with self-assurance and élan. He played the part of the Chairman like a cross between a thinker and a mystic, and kept the listener guessing whether the octogenarian head-of-state was a shrewd philosopher or simply a senile revolutionary whose brain had been "liberated" some years earlier.

Perhaps the most compelling figure in this opera is Premier Chou En-lai, the genuine and earnest philosopher-politician trying desperately to find meaning and purpose in post-revolutionary China, from the heavy price of its Cultural Revolution to the futility of Nixon's visit. Baritone Russell Braun played his role with a good balance of stoicism and perspicacity, adding weight to his words of reflection at the end of the opera.

Coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim crafted a zealous (if not borderline-demented) figure as Mao's wife, Chiang Ch'ing. Kim, whose brilliant effort as Olympia many will remember from the Met's production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann last season, was once again vocally dazzling in a role whose high register allows little room for error. She sang "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung" with the misguided zeal of a spoiled child who, in a much different culture, might boast "My parents make more money than yours." Kim looked rather scary waving Mao's cultural manifesto above her head menacingly ("I speak according to the book"), as if it were a weapon of mass destruction.

NixonAlthough the role of Henry Kissinger hardly seems properly matched to a comic figure, Richard Paul Fink played the farcical part of Nixon's Secretary of State with a pleasant voice and the right touch of levity. Of course, it doesn't hurt that his face resembles that of famed comedian (and now Senator from Minnesota), Al Franken. For some reason, Fink's character plays the villain in "The Red Detachment of Women." How odd to see a whip-yielding, leather-bound Kissinger – it's difficult to imagine the man capable of doing any harm beyond boring the poor girl to death.

Set Director Adrianne Lobel contrasts the "have and have-not" cultures of China and the U.S. through two symbols of authority – an imposing cut-out of Air Force One and a towering portrait of Chairman Mao that hangs menacingly over the stage. Each is, in its own way, a symbol of power, might and control. The East-West culture clash is mirrored effectively in Dunya Ramicova's colorless and featureless outfits worn by the Chinese women, and James Ingalls's cold and sterile lighting effects.

Mark Morris's appealing dance scenes in "The Red Detachment of Women," the story-ballet that acts out a tale of oppressed women at the hands of the rhetorical Western tyrannical capitalist-pigs, did much to animate the otherwise static action on stage.

Peter Sellars's direction of the three female Chinese secretary-translators, a strangely engaging ensemble of lackeys who hover around the Chairman and repeat his words like a Greek Chorus of mindless automatons, forged a measure of welcome comic relief. Sellars, the colorful American director who first conceived the idea that would later blossom into Nixon in China, makes his Metropolitan Opera debut with this set of performances.

The Met Orchestra was uncharacteristically tentative at times and I wondered whether they were entirely enchanted with the musical score – or the composer who directed them at the podium. Intonation in the brass was uncertain, as well. A well-synchronized Met Chorus of revolutionary guards, standing at attention with vacuous looks of the oppressed masses, sounded beautifully as they awaited the arrival of Air Force One at the opening of Act 1.

The opera comes to a close as the six characters, readying for bed on the final night of the trip, try to make sense out of the events of the past week. Only there's no denouement here, and the listener must hazard a guess as to the point of the three-hour and forty-five minute story.

"How much of what we did was good?" muses Premier Chou near the very end of the opera. Much the same question may be asked of Nixon in China.


By David Abrams

Photo Credits: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

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