'Nixon in China' Revisited: If It Ain't Broke....

February 4, 2011 | By Patrick J. Smith
NEW YORK -- At last! Air Force One, carrying Pat and Dick Nixon, has landed at the Metropolitan Opera. The first so-called "CNN Opera," fashioned from Nixon's 1972 historic visit to China, to Mao and Chou en-Lai, arrived onstage Feb. 2 under the sympathetic but hardly perfect conducting of its composer, John Adams. The production is essentially a reworking of the 1987 original, directed by Peter Sellars, that premiered in Houston and was seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and abroad, and, though faithful to the original sets (by Adrianne Lobel), has been in places restaged by Sellars, almost always to its detriment.

"Nixon in China," however, continues to stand as a major achievement in American operatic writing, and indeed as the years recede from that historic time (who of the young remember Nixon today?) it gains in stature, as depicting (in the first two acts) incidents from the visit itself, and in the short (35-minute) last act -- the most moving section of Alice Goodman's libretto -- an inward look at the minds of the principals involved. It is this act that is the most daring departure from standard operatic practice, for it constitutes a long diminuendo of interior speculation. Yet it also this act’s character insights that elevate "Nixon" from being a "CNN Opera" to a work of distinction and permanence.

Certainly there is a poignancy to Nixon's confession of fright at being bombed by the Japanese, and of his delight at "Nixon's Snack Shack," where he served hamburgers (rare, medium or well done) to flyers passing through on the way to war. The quiet calm of the bedrooms in which the principals -- Mao, Madame Mao, Pat and Dick and Chou -- muse about their lives forms a sort of five-part abstract fugue, eliciting some of Adams' strongest music and beautifully partnered with his earlier extroverted outcries, such as Nixon's "entrance aria" ("News! News! News!") or the loud choral finales of Acts I and II. This is operatic composition of a very high order.

Memories of the past almost always devolve into sentimental nostalgia, and it is difficult to separate this Met production from its essentially-same predecessors viewed multiple times elsewhere. But the fact remains that, for whatever reason, the original cast for "Nixon" was almost note-perfect, and no subsequent gathering of voices and actors will ever displace their hold on the mind. Only one member of that original cast is present -- James Maddalena’s Nixon -- and his performance has come to define the operatic role. He has assimilated more about the character over the years he has been playing it, but it must be said that he is a few years beyond the best of his voice, and the demands of the auditorium seem to strain him.

Nonetheless, even with his vocal difficulties, Maddalena’s is the most rounded portrayal of the major characters. Tenor Robert Brubaker chooses to play Mao as a sort of spastic, tottering invalid of outsized exaggerations, which sacrifices the nobility, inner strength and wily opportunism of Goodman's libretto. Russell Braun, in the central role of Chou, has a fine baritone voice but simply cannot project the charisma, the conflict and the deep poetic essence of this complex character, who must carry the final act with his great summation speech. Janis Kelly, as Pat Nixon, rose to the occasion in her operatic scena that is Adams' and Goodman's paean to America (so much more deeply felt than many commissioned "commemorative" compositions!), and Kathleen Kim well negotiated the soprano stratosphere in her coloratura viciousness as Madame Mao.

I suppose Richard Paul Fink obeyed orders at making Kissinger even more of a villain than he is in the libretto. Sellars has coarsened his view of the man, and it is far too much. Elsewhere, Sellars seems to have been intimidated by the size of the Met stage, so that he felt compelled to fill it with action -- much of it needless. Certainly the diminuendo last act needs no reinforcement, and to populate it with extras and busyness is to undercut the immediacy of the foreground characters. To insert a funeral for Chou is directly to contradict the libretto, whose final injunction from Chou is not to give up but "To Work!," as the birds begin to sing outside, a new day dawns and "the chill of grace lies heavy on the morning grass" -- one of the finest last lines of any operatic libretto.

No, this Met production may be on the surface a revival of the original but it is more a later consideration. What is more important, however, is that there are other productions of the opera, in different guises, out there . The opera in Variety-speak "has legs" -- and those legs will carry it down the road, as one of the shining examples of what can be fashioned in this age from an age-old art form.

The performance, by the by, was amplified at the contractual insistence of the composer.



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