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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