Thursday, February 3, 2011

Review: Adams' Nixon in China Arrives at the Met

I listened – mostly with something approaching rapture – to the Sirius broadcast of the Met’s “Nixon in China” last night and with few exceptions couldn’t have been more thrilled. Even though the evening was not without blemish, I felt this to be a most important night and overall a major success for the Company and one too long overdue.

This morning I repeatedly heard remarks for James Maddalena some assigning him to the dust bin of a singer “past his sell by date” which is completely incorrect. It was clear (especially over the broadcast) this was a singer who had just fallen ill, his coughing and clearing phlegm in the first 20 minutes of the performance were terrifying and I thought the curtain might even come down to bring out his cover. I was completely surprised that no pre-curtain announcement was made, but perhaps, the singer felt he was fine to go on at curtain and once there, it was past the point of no return. Even over the airwaves alone and not at his best, Maddalena's performance was riveting and, most of all, moving. Not an easy assignment on the best of days and one to be heartily applauded.

As Pat Nixon, Janis Kelly began the evening a bit tentatively with a bit of harshness to the sound which was unfortunate. Fully warmed up by Act II, however, her very long (and difficult) scene was buoyed by a luminous sound and a complete identification with the role and by scene’s end, the high, exposed and gentle writing came through with some of the evening’s most beautiful singing, fully revealing the First Lady’s fear, confusion and introspection. She was, in a word, marvelous.

Adams concentrates on the women in Act II and following Kelly’s lovely performance, Kathleen Kim blazed onto the stage with “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung” in one of the opera’s most bravura scenes nailing it and capping it with a spectacular high note (I believe this added because of who was singing) holding onto it for what seemed like forever – a thrilling end to the powerful scene.

As Mao, Robert Brubaker sang wonderfully sailing through Adams’ heldentenor writing As Kissinger and the lord of The Red Detachment of Women, Richard Paul Fink was the model of creepy clarity, singing beautifully throughout, while providing plenty of evil chill. Wonderful. Russell Braun as Chou en-Lai provided some of the evening’s most thoughtful singing – ending an opera so filled with aural spectacle, softly and great beauty. Adams’ score here strongly recalls Wagner and Strauss, but there were bars where I heard, for the first time, a strong influence of Poulenc in the harmonies that close the work.

I felt the composer did a fine job of holding his difficult score together though some blips along the way marred several ensemble passages, yet seemed quickly to get back on track with (clearly) the orchestra counting through all of those tricky time signatures as if their lives depended upon it – and in a way, they did! None of this concerned me too much, as the orchestra seemed entirely in Adams’ camp and responded with a remarkable sense of cohesion and blend that frequently allowed this very special score to the heights it aims for.

I’m certain the sense of ensemble will only improve throughout the run, and here’s to hoping that whatever was ailing Mr. Maddalena last evening, departs quickly allowing him to return to this role he so brilliantly created and still has much to say about.

Happy Year of the Hare & BRAVO to Maestro Adams and the Met!

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Blogger Will said...

I was at yesterday's matinee. The house was pretty much full and there were a lot of younger people in the audience. There were a few defections, more at the second intermission than the first, but the vast majority of the audience stayed and roared their delight, giving Adams particular ovations during the afternoon as he entered the pit and as he came on stage for the calls.

I had seen Nixon in the Opera Boston's Scott Edmiston production that had more of an elegant simplicity to it than Sellars' enlarged version of his original staging; on the other hand Sellars directed the potentially problematic, ruminative act 3 with some fascinating action and compelling visual imagery -- the penny really dropped for me yesterday about act 3.

Pet peeve (OK, one of them): commentators who say "this opera is four hours long." No, it's not--it's a couple of minutes over two and a half hours long. The rest of the time is provided by the interminable MET intermissions that now run to 35 minutes.

February 13, 2011 at 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to the Met this February to see this... Mind you this was my 11th opera at the Met this season - just so you know it wasn't the "make or break" opera for me. Anyway, I hate it. Original reviewer in 1987 said something about arpeggios -- he was right! And after looking at the synthesizer box in parterre I understand why Adams likes them so much -- they only take one channel and in 87 oscillators were a big deal. Opera has no plot. Opera misses many political angles of the Vietnam war and Cold War with Soviet Union. Sorry, I think its junk. Or just call it a musical and be done with it.

February 15, 2011 at 8:56 PM  
Blogger Will said...

Nixon in China isn't about the Cold War or the Vietnam War. It focuses on a particular moment in the Nixon presidency, one very special event, there being no requirement to deal with the entirety of Nixon's presidency just because he's being placed on stage.

Nixon is not a 19th century opera, and it has no obligation to be structured like one. In the second half of the 20th century writers began experimenting with other forms than strict linear narrative. Opera has always evolved along the same lines with the theater and literature of its time and that's what it's doing now.

February 15, 2011 at 9:18 PM  
Blogger Sharky said...

Will you took the words right outta my mouth. All art evolves over time and nothing stays the same - nor should it. I love this work (as I do all of Adams operas, particularly Doctor Atomic). I don't comprehend the idea of "call it a musical and be done with it." It's a full fledged opera, written for an enormous orchestra with all roles written specifically for the demands of operatic voices.

Not liking (or even hating) something Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, doesn't make it "junk" regardless of what one thinks of it.

February 15, 2011 at 11:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh it is fine to write an opera about one special event in a president's life which has nothing to do with other events in his life. A good example in Nixon's life would be Watergate -- nothing to do with Cold War!

But this opera is about Nixon in China -- that is the tittle of it! By traveling to China Nixon increased the gap of mistrust between Soviet Union and China. Vietnam was Soviet satellite -- not Chinese. In 1972 Americans were dying in Vietnam -- surely on the mind of the president.

When we withdraw we create vacuum in Kampuchea to be filled by Khmer Rouge -- did Nixon put this in motion on purpose while meeting with Chou Enlai??

Adams pretends there are no greater questions to ask about this "one very special event". In a way that is also an opinion, which happens to influence the uneducated who go and see "Nixon in China".

February 15, 2011 at 11:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "junk" comment was said for the following reasons (listed in reverse order):

Completely missing historical setting.

Having no plot.

Writing simplified music just so it requires fewer channels in your synthesizer.

Now the "musical" option is actually an upgrade -- the threshold to qualify as a musical is lower, so this maybe an "okay" musical.

February 15, 2011 at 11:40 PM  
Blogger Will said...

Anonymous (and why are you anonymous, do you lack the courage to reveal your identity if you wish to take part in this discussion?) you don't get it. Nixon in China is not about any of what you propose should have been dragged in.

By your standards, somewhere in the first act of Traviata, Dr. Grenville should read the full report that the University of Paris put out, declaring tuberculosis to be a threat to the very survival of European civilization, to Violetta's party guests. That would be a real toe-tapper. Trovatore would include a scene explaining the complex relationship among the gypsies, very newly arrived on the Iberian peninsula at the time of the opera, the Taifa Kingdoms, and the ongoing Reconquista. Half the audience would be asleep or flee.

It's THEATER, not a PhD thesis!

February 16, 2011 at 3:57 PM  
Blogger Smorg said...

I wish I could have attended! Thanks a bunch for the write up, Paul, and for always seeking to understand each opera on their terms and appreciating the efforts that were put into the performance rather than playing 'got cha!' like many tend to do when reviewing opera performances. :oD It's one of the reasons why I'm addicted to your blog!

I also love the way you and others (like Will) are willing to let opera evolve and explore new boundaries, too. I'm working on an interview with Kurtz Frausun, the composer of a new 'German opera' called The Dawn at the moment. Been checking his previous works out on youtube and don't quite know what to think of his foray into opera yet... But I'm glad he is interested in the genre (I mean... he and his music probably aren't quite what you would have in your mind's eyes when you think of an opera composer).

Sometimes I wonder what Mozart would think of Lulu or Salome... but I wouldn't like to be rid of those two (and other) works even if old Wolfie doesn't like them either. ;o)

Cheers and hope your February is going well!

February 17, 2011 at 1:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will I am anonymous simply because I don't feel like registering for another blog "thingie" just to comment on this one opera.

I read this blog from time to time, overall I like it and I don't feel the need to stamp my approval every time I agree.

Anyway... Sure you can pull out my operas where some aspect of politics is smudged -- I have no issues with that in general. But what you are missing in this specific case is serious misrepresentation of our president. This opera makes him look like a person who only went to China for (and I quote): "The NEWS!".

I saw Simon Boccanegra in January and in it Adorno is the son of Simon's enemy (whom Simon has already executed). This is incorrect! But does that substantially change the meaning of the opera Simon Boccanegra? No it does not. If anything it enhances it, makes it more complicated and gives both characters something to exhaust their emotion on -- a welcomed addition.

Is Nixon in China a comic opera? Are the creators trying to make fun of Nixon? Laugh at his exaggerated shortcomings? No! So, why are they making out of him a simpleton? Why is it okay to suggest that he just went to China to gather publicity? He went to China with a plan darn it! What plan? To Withdraw from Indochina!


February 18, 2011 at 1:47 AM  
Blogger Sharky said...

Smorg - I'm both humbled and honored by your very kind comments! Honestly, I'm always most fascinated by the very idea of so many things coming together to create a seemingly singular but always insanely complex art (especially opera!)

That some STILL see it as an ever evolving art form (not with any intent towards achieving some perceived notion of "perfection," and want to talk about it (or write about it!) is an absolute thrill for me.

Always cool to see your posts!

For some reason I think Mozart would've loved both Lulu and Salome!

February 19, 2011 at 2:30 AM  
Blogger Will said...

I agree, about Mozart, Lulu and Salome. He was always interested in possibilities, he took risks, he explored. I don't see him as ever saying , "well the libretto title page says this is a comedy, therefore we can't possibly explore X or Z that are serious emotions." What he might have achieved had he survived into the Romantic Age! Don Giovanni shows strongly that he was ready for it.

February 19, 2011 at 7:40 AM  
Blogger Will said...

For a wonderful and in depth essay on Adams' NiC, go to
Daniel Stephen Johnson goes into the NiC libretto in depth and deals with the real, not superficial, meanings of the choices made by the creative team. At the moment, Stephen's Adams piece is the second post on the blog.

For those who may be interested, as the issue of "updated" stagings is raised, the last and most recent comment is mine on some important facts to keep in mind in the face of knee-jerk rejection of updating.

February 19, 2011 at 9:56 AM  
Blogger Sharky said...

Odd that you posted that blog address for the "Nixon" piece here, Will. I had JUST read it before checking in here! It really is a wonderful essay on the opera itself as well as a review, and the discussion following it has been fascinating (as has this one - for me at least!)

Yes, I groan at the bashing "good" regietheatre gets, or the yawn-inducing comments of contempt one always encounters on the topic of "updating" productions.

Too (too!) many folk go into the opera house with a pre-conceived idea of what they're going to get - closed off entirely from any attempt to experience or connect how the performers and production team are interpreting even the most familiar of works.

So much GOOD has come from regietheatre that I wholeheartedly believe regie has had a positive influence on many directors who choose the "traditional" path for their productions.

February 19, 2011 at 3:13 PM  

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