The Juilliard Orchestra with John Adams at Carnegie Hall
The New York Times, February 21, 2011
The night after this concert, I finally got to see the Metropolitan Opera's new production of John Adams's opera Nixon in China, presented in the original 1987 staging by Peter Sellars--more or less. Many reviews appeared after the premiere earlier this month, including those by my friends and colleagues Tony Tommasini, Zachary Woolfe and Anne Midgette. I don't feel any real urge to add my voice to that critical matrix, though my sympathies are most closely reflected in Anne's review.
[Update Feb. 22, 2011: Daniel Stephen Johnson steps into the mix with an outstanding, must-read blog essay on Nixon, here.]
But I've definitely been thinking about the differences between this revival and the original Houston Grand Opera presentation in 1987, when, as a college student enrolled at Trinity University in San Antonio, I flew home to Houston to attend the very first performance. No real operaphile yet, I was spurred by Adams's first few recordings on the Nonesuch and ECM labels, and not much more.
When I mentioned my attendance to Sellars during his visit to Trinity less than a week after the prima, he acted aghast. "Oh, you must come back and see it again," he exclaimed. "We've fixed everything!"
But at the Met, nearly a quarter century later, Sellars was still finding things to revise. Among the things discussed in my Time Out New York interview with Sellars and Adams was the fact that we have all learned so much more about the opera's real-life protagonists since Nixon first appeared. I based this on having read shortly before the interview Mao: The Unknown Story, an inflammatory and, according to some, overly biased biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.
Sellars replied that the Met revival would take into account all the revelations that have come to light since Nixon was created. "You will see a very different Chou En-lai," he said. "You will see a very different Mao. You’ll see a very different Madame Mao. And you will see a very different Pat and Dick."
All of which was true, to varying degrees. Chou seemed changed least, apart from Russell Braun affecting the premier's lame right arm and adopting a generally sterner demeanor than did the role's creator, Sanford Sylvan. Mao, played at the Met by Robert Brubaker, was aged and doddering, a rightly decrepit echo of the heroic mien John Duykers bore in 1987.
Richard Paul Fink's Kissinger at the Met wasn't so very far from that of Thomas Hammons at HGO, though Fink threw himself into the second act's climactic ballet sequences with a more reckless gusto. Janis Kelly's Pat Nixon, a sterling portrayal, offered a character more vulnerable and pained than the girlish innocent of Carolann Page's creation. More sympathetic, too--and more surprisingly so--was the Madame Mao of Kathleen Kim, lent more nuance in the last act than was Trudy Ellen Craney in the original staging.
Common to Houston in 1987 and the Met in 2011 was James Maddalena as Nixon. True to all reports, Maddalena's voice is not in the same hale condition it was at the role's inception. How could it be? But along with the mixed reviews of his performance during the Met prima came suggestions that he was suffering from a cold; during Saturday's final performance Maddalena's voice showed the effects of years passed, but this, for me, enriched his portrayal rather than diminishing it.
In terms of Sellars's direction, I was surprised by the absence of any substantial changes during the first and second acts. Knowing the piece so well didn't diminish its impact--if anything, the shiver I felt during the early chorus "The people are the heroes now" was even more profound--nor did awareness of the stagy artificiality with which Air Force One would descend from the rafters make its arrival any less triumphant.
During the busy banquet in Act Two, I delighted in details I'd missed before, if in fact they were there. (It's hard to tell in a worn VHS recording of the 1987 PBS Great Performers telecast.) I was charmed to notice how Mao's secretaries, when miming translations of speeches in English to an imaginary mass-media audience, mouthed words in English, and how they hesitated to translate Nixon's impromptu "I opposed China," then beamed as they mouthed his next words: "I was wrong."
The biggest changes came during the third act, though even these were not so sweeping as to constitute a wholesale reconception. The core of the staging remained five characters on individual beds, reflecting on events of this monumental visit, and on their paths leading up to it.
Anyone following Twitter during the Met prima knows that the most contentious additions were the simulated sex acts performed upon Mao by a secretary while his wife--dressed in slinky night wear, rather than the business suit Craney wore to bed--sang dolefully nearby. But this, however egregious or offensive it might have seemed to many observers, at least felt consistent with a reappraisal of Mao as a narcissist and womanizer four times married. (That Mao also simulated a sex act upon his wife seems to have gone unmentioned.)
Surrounding Chou's bed with lilies, left by a solemn procession, and having both his body and Mao's draped, corpselike, with Chinese flags, offered wayward visual counterpoint to the last act's stream-of-consciousness poetry. On the other hand, incorporating props and bits of scenery from previous acts into a silent background parade seemed effective: a dreamlike profusion of impressions playing out quietly, just below the surface of the tangled memories and emotions the characters express as they process the historic event in which they've just participated.