Thursday, February 17, 2011

NIXON IN CHINA AT THE MET, IN TORONTO AND ON THE BIG SCREEN

by James Karas

It is not often that you get to see an opera three times in one week, but my stars were aligned in such a way that I was able to attend Nixon in China at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Canadian Opera Company’s production as well as Live from the Met in HD.

John Adams’ opera about President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 premiered in 1987 in Houston. It was Adams’ first opera but it is very much the brainchild of Peter Sellars and has had numerous productions since. It has finally arrived at the Met in a major production that has elicited a lot of media attention. Sellars directed this production as well.

Coincidentally it also had its Canadian Opera Company premiere several days later in a production directed by James Robinson.

After seeing operas by Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi in succession at the Met, Nixon in China comes as a pretty dramatic change. Adams’ music is a long way from Verdi and the familiar arias, ensemble pieces and flourishes that we associate with operas from that era. Nixon in China is minimalist music which means that chords or short melodic pieces are played repeatedly with minor variations that build up to a musical whole. At first it sounds like rap music where some phrase is repeatedly endlessly, it seems.

There are some choral pieces and a ballet scene when the music soars to anything but minimalist. Whatever the buildup and the excitement, there is nothing Verdian or even Wagnerian here. All of this requires an adjustment to one’s ears

As one would expect, the Met gives Nixon in China a grand production with first-rate singers. The orchestra was conducted by the composer and Peter Sellars, the creative genius behind the opera directed it.

American baritone James Maddalena, a man with a big sonorous voice and an uncanny resemblance to Nixon, sang the role that he created at the premiere of the opera. Scottish soprano Janis Kelly was the slightly na├»ve Pat Nixon who delivers the lengthy aria/recitative “This is prophetic” in Act II. German baritone Russell Braun is an upright and rigorous Chou En-lai while American tenor Robert Brubaker plays the doddering Mao Tse-tung.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink) is reduced to a buffoon in the opera but Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-tung) is given numerous show-stealing opportunities and Korean soprano Kathleen Kim takes advantage of all of them.
The COC production can stand its own beside the Met’s even if the vocal talent (or budget, for that matter) cannot, in fairness match the latter’s. Director Robinson and set designer Allen Moyer make their own mark rather than aping the Adrianne Lobel’s designs for the Met.

At the Met, we are given the front end of The Spirit of ’76, the presidential jet, and Nixon steps out giving his famous wave. No such dramatic entrance is provided in Toronto. The smaller stage of the Four Seasons Centre necessitates smaller sets than the huge stage at Lincoln Centre.

The final scene of the opera takes place on the last night of the visit. In New York, there are six beds on the stage, one for each of the main characters, perhaps. In Toronto, there are six television consoles which play scenes from the actual visit. I could not get a good look at the screens but it provided an interesting variation.

American baritone Robert Orth played a very credible Nixon and soprano Maria Kanyova did a fine job as Pat Nixon. Adrian Thompson sounded hoarse and decrepit as Mao, no doubt representing the character rather than his real vocal ability.

On February 12, 2011, Nixon in China was broadcast live in movie theatres. Needless to say the broadcast featured all the vices and most of the virtues of such a viewing. The broadcast was directed by Sellars himself so we cannot complain about someone sabotaging the director’s intentions.

The opera opens in an airfield outside Peking where a contingent of servicemen is awaiting the arrival of Nixon and sing. After giving us one long shot of the stage, Sellars zeroes in on close-ups of unknown characters. What the hell is going on? Who are these people and why are you not letting us see the whole stage again? And why are you changing camera angles after every handshake?

There are many advantages, of course. Facial expressions are great to see and there are details that only a close up can reveal. The intermission features are usually interesting and you do get some information. You also get fulsome, very, very fulsome, expressions of mutual admiration and some inane questions and the concomitant answers.

All the promotional and much of the critical commentary of the opera made use of numerous superlatives including the big one – “a masterpiece.” It may well be but I cannot admit to enjoying the entire piece. There are some recitatives that go beyond Wagnerian longueurs and approach tedium. There are also some magnificent scenes. The libretto by Alice Goodman goes beyond most 19th century operas in complexity and attempt to capture the personal and political importance of the situation. That is a significant achievement,

What is needed, I suppose, is for one’s ear to become attuned and accustomed to the Adams’s music and be able to approach it with the same zeal as, say, Verdi and Wagner.

One thing is certain however: seeing an opera three times in one week in two different productions and one on the big screen is perhaps the best way to enjoy a work, new or old. Of course, you could go to London, Paris and Milan …. but let’s stop dreaming.
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Nixon in China by John Adams opened on February 5 and will play until February 26, 2011 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca. It continues at the Metropolitan Opera, New York until February 19, 2011. www.metopera.org and it will be shown in movie theatres again on March 12, 2011.

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