“Nixon In China”—finally at the Met after all these years

Last night, February 2, 2011, John Adams’s iconic 1987 American opera Nixon in China finally had its Metropolitan Opera premiere, with the composer conducting his own work and with James Maddalena, the baritone who created the role of Richard Nixon at the opera’s first performance, making his Met debut as the U.S. president who visited the People’s Republic of China in 1972 and set in motion a chain of events that only now do we see fully expressed.

I listened to the performance via SiriusXM’s very steady, high quality stream. The Met also streamed the performance from its own web site. The opera will be performed on the Met HD video series on Saturday, February 12, at 1:00 PM.

The opera was given in a production modeled after the first production at the Houston Grand Opera. Peter Sellers made his Met debut as director. The widely published image of the production is that of the Air Force One 747 nose “landing” on the stage, with Dick and Pat Nixon (Scottish soprano Janis Kelly, in her Met debut) and Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink) then descending the stairs to greet the Chinese delegation, including Chou En-lai (in the Met performance played by the elegant German baritone Russell Braun).

Nixon in China was John Adams’s first opera, and the music he composed—for both singers and orchestra—is fiendishly difficult. The orchestral parts are fraught with rhythmic difficulties; and the vocal lines have many repetitions, often at a very high range. There are several set-piece “arias,” including Nixon’s antic “News, news, news” at the beginning; Pat Nixon’s “This is prophetic” during the second act, and, most astonishing, Madame Mao’s coloratura triumph, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung.” The characters of Mao and Kissinger are treated more as caricatures, without being fleshed out as much as some of the other roles. (In the third act, Henry Kissinger has what must be the most humiliating exit in all of opera, when he asks Cho En-lai where the toilet is and exits for the rest of the opera.)

The performance itself was for the most part spectacular. James Maddalena’s Nixon must be considered definitive. However, the singer seemed to be struggling with a bad cold. His voice sounded very husky, he had trouble maintaining the lines, and his voice cracked several times during the impossible music that Adams composed for Nixon in the first act. It is a marathon for a singer at the peak of form; it must have been torture to feel not up to par. Janis Kelly played a very sympathetic Pat Nixon, who tolerates the slights she receives from her husband, but who displays spunk during the Chinese opera performance of the second act, when she steps into the action to “protect” a Chinese peasant being beaten by a sadistic man not yet “converted” to communism. Kathleen Kim (who also performs coloratura biggies as Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Strauss’s Zerbinetta) tossed off her big showpiece aria at the end of Act 2 as if it was a little ditty.

The music of third act has a sense of greater repose than most of the rest of the opera. The principal characters, the Nixons, the Maos, Kissinger and Chou En-lai play the act on six single beds spread across the stage. It is at the end of the Nixon visit; all are exhausted. The act is one long intertwined ensemble in which each of the characters express regrets of the past and comment on what might be in the future. Chou En-lai has the last words, in which he ruminates on the coming of the new day. The opera’s libretto by Alice Goodman is highly poetic. The singers did an excellent job with their diction; the words were understandable, but much of the context is lost without benefit of the printed libretto. (Poet Alice Goodman is an interesting character. She is a friend of director Sellers and had never before written an opera libretto. After Nixon in China, she went on to collaborate on the libretto for Adams’s second, highly controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer. In more recent years, she converted from Judaism to the Anglican branch of Christianity and now serves as a chaplain at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge.)

Pride of place must go to the incomparable Metropolitan Opera orchestra for their precision and beauty of sound. John Adams has long been a convincing conductor of his own works. He is clearly a skilled conductor, and this was not just a vanity engagement.

I’m looking forward to the HD video broadcast. That will be the fourth performance of the run. We can hope that the cast will be restored to full health. Nixon in China is an important musical work of the twentieth century. We can celebrate its appearance at the Met.

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