Nixon in Amber

By James Jorden

It’s not hard to guess why Peter Gelb would choose to import a recreation of the original production of Nixon in China instead of devising a new staging from scratch. It would hardly be prudent to blow a million dollars on a six-performance run of a work unlikely to be revived any time soon, and surely the Met’s General Manager felt he should offer an olive branch to Peter Sellars after the snub of Dr. Atomic.

On the other hand, if I wanted someone sensible and kind running the Met, I wouldn’t have voted for Peter Gelb.

Don’t get me wrong, I am overjoyed that Nixon in China is on the bill at that Met and I intend to cajole everybody I know into attending it. It’s an important American opera that the other Lincoln Center opera company—the one just to the south of the Met—has inexplicably allowed to slip through its fingers while showcasing such drain-circlers as Marilyn, Lilith and Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The programming of a work like Nixon serves the public in a number of ways: exposing the core audience to newer music and bringing into the opera house a new, different audience are just two of them.

And musically the production achieves a very high level, if not quite the pinnacle it might if it weren’t wrestling for rehearsal time with Simon Boccanegra, Iphigénie en Tauride and such. All the principals were fine, except James Maddalena, who (one hopes) was simply fighting a losing battle with allergies on opening night.

What’s missing, though, is a sense of sheer newness that would seem to go hand in hand with a company premiere. It may be an artistic decision to make the sets look worn and heavily-traveled, or, for that matter, to design a production that seems to be almost all soft goods, seemingly rolled out and hung for a night then loaded back on the truck for the next stop on tour.

But the impression made on this observer was not one of elegant spareness or even an attempt at “poor theater.” Instead, the show looked a little tired and a little cheap, the work of a director with big ideas who’s forced to turn his ingenuity to suggesting a palace with a repurposed grand drape and a few folding chairs.

Again, there’s nothing morally wrong with not having money to spend on a production, but there is something discordant about this happening amid the gold leaf, crystal chandeliers and couture-clad audience of the Metropolitan Opera. It feels like the Met is a little ashamed of Nixon, treating it like a bastard stepchild instead of the heir presumptive.

A more significant aesthetic point is that, while it it just possible to create a production of La bohème or Parsifal that will still have something fresh to say after 25 years, Sellars’ staging of Nixon was not,  I think, ever intended to be the one-size-fits-all solution to the work. It’s entirely reasonable that the ur-Nixon toured in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it’s appropriate that Sellars, whose brainchild this was in the first place, should remain closely associated with the property.

What doesn’t make sense is that 15 years into the opera’s performance history, a major production of the work for the English National Opera should be a scaled-up version of the original, or that the Met should then lazily import from the ENO a copy of a copy.

Metropolitan Opera, 2011

Houston Grand Opera, 1987

Sellars was in his mid 20’s when he conceived Nixon in China; he’s over 50 now. Is it really possible that in a quarter of a century he has grown so little as an artist that he cannot conceive a new way to approach the work? No, this is a bit like imagining that Orson Welles should be employing the identical cinematic vocabulary in Chimes at Midnight that he used in Citizen Kane Or, rather, it’s to suggest that had Welles remade Kane at a remove of 25 years he would have reproduced his youthful effort shot for shot.

So, I don’t know why it is that the Met’s Nixon in China ended up so stiff and lifeless, but I do know it’s a damn shame to bungle so rich an opportunity.

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