Nixon in China: Mao Meets the Met

Nixon in China: Mao Meets the Met

What a difference a generation makes: when John Adams’ Nixon in China premiered in 1987 at Houston Grand Opera, former President Nixon was still alive, director Peter Sellars was far more enfant terrible than theatrical icon — and the U.S. was nowhere near forever in China’s debt.

It has taken nearly a quarter century for the opera — which some time ago seemed clearly destined to attain reportorial status — to reach the hallowed stage of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. It opened on February 2, but when the latest “Live from the Met in HD” telecast went out to hundreds of theaters Saturday, more people probably saw a single performance than had witnessed the opera in person since its premiere.

I know I was a grateful auditor at the Marcus Theatre Eastgate Cinema; having seen a homemade video of the 1988 PBS telecast, I never found myself in the right place at the right time to have a live encounter with some mythic figures of my own lifetime, as filtered through the couplet-structured libretto of Alice Goodman. Much has changed out of necessity, but what remained and what had changed was all for the better on balance.

Peter Sellars directed the stage performance and the telecast, and baritone James Maddalena, the original Nixon, was back in the title role. The sets were the same, albeit enlarged to take advantage of the sprawling Met stage, composer John Adams was conducting in the pit, Mark Morris was still on hand to choreograph the Act II ballet….and most of all, Adams’ more than minimalist music poured forth from the superb Met orchestra.

One of the first things to strike me was how much was added by the subtitles. Yes, of course the work is in English, but I immediately recalled how little I could make out from the people’s opening chorus in the PBS version. Goodman’s text is rich, clever, and as is often the case in opera, words get swallowed up in the music; subtitles fix that problem completely.

Maddalena revealed, particularly toward the end of the first act, that his instrument does not retain the strength in the high notes he once had, but for now it is still impossible to imagine anyone else as Nixon. Janis Kelly proved complex and moving as Pat Nixon, with a powerful and expressive voice. She is no newcomer to the role, having first sung it at the English National Opera in 2000. Russell Braun as Chou En-lai makes an immediate impression, but rises to an even higher level in the banquet scene that concludes the first act.

Before that comes the great scene in which the male protagonists all meet, with Mao attended by his three “Mao-ettes,” with Chou, Nixon and Kissinger all present. The uneasy shifting between anxious to please diplomacy and quasi-bewilderment over whether Mao is subtle or senile is captured equally in the music and the acting. The first intermission feature, with baritone Thomas Hampson a personable and accomplished host, provided a great bonus: an interview with Winston Lord, a special State Dept. envoy who was present at that meeting but left out of the official photos. He verified that the first part of the scene was practically verbatim, and that the opera really captured that strange dynamic that unfolded.

We don’t meet Madame Mao until Act II (the character name is Chiang Ch’ing), sung by Kathleen Kim. Her borderline megalomaniacal aria, “I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung” was curdling, not just for its tessitura that includes three high Ds, but in its overall intensity. It is preceded by the ballet “The Red Detachment of Women,” in which the Nixons find themselves sucked into the action, and a Kissinger look-alike (Richard Paul Fink), is a surreal blend of Uncle Tom’s Cabin violence and en pointe classicism.

The final act is an overlapping blend of characters’ reminiscences and trying to place the events of that 1972 February week in a future context. The music is at its most lyrical, least minimalist, and the characterizations (save for Kissinger, who makes an early exit) at their most complex and multi-layered. It is opera that haunts the mind more than the inner ear, and is the likely source of a tug to go see it again.

And you have that chance, or can experience it for yourself if you missed it. Both Eastgate and Point Cinema will re-run the telecast on March 2 at 6:30 p.m. As with the performance of Boris Godunov that I saw in October, “Live from the Met in HD” is a fabulous experience at the cinema. If some purists carp that the best theater sound is no match for the live experience, well, theatergoers get those intermission features. In Saturday’s performance, Hampson’s interviews covered all six principal singers, Adams, Sellars, the set designer, Adrianne Lobel, the aforementioned Winston Lord and Mark Morris. And if politics and minimalist music isn’t your operatic cup of tea, then on February 26 you can catch Placido Domingo in Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride. I know it’s probably my last chance to see the 70-year old superstar tenor sing live from anywhere, especially the Met — and I only have to drive six miles. 

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