John Adams’ minimalist opera, Nixon in China, started out as a production for the Houston Grand Opera (co-commissioned with a few others), where it premiered in 1987. Peter Sellers directed then, as he did for this new and current production at the Metropolitan Opera. It was broadcast nationwide to your local movie theater as part of The Met Live in HD series on Feb. 12 (and repeats at 6:30 p.m. March 2).
Also in the “same as then” category is James Maddalena as Nixon, a role he has sung almost nonstop in productions around the world ever since. He was in terrible voice for the broadcast, so it is impossible to comment on how he might have done under more favorable circumstances. He sure looked the part however. Others in the cast were very strong and looked passably like the figures they portrayed. One odd thing was that there was no attempt to make the nonAsian actors look Chinese. Perhaps they were trying to show that people are people no matter what their nationality. Still, one would never do this with a Western woman singing Butterfly.
The opera itself has been panned and praised by critics far and wide for years. Where some saw insights into the characters of the protagonists using exaggeration as a tool, others saw ruthless lampooning and the holding out of world leaders to ridicule. Some saw his portrayal of communist China as too generous and that of capitalist America too stingy. Musically, his hypnotically repeated motifs and his constant layering of cross rhythms either enchants or stupefies.
As far as the transition from stage to the screen, Nixon in China works as well as any of the operas broadcast this season. This is especially true of the last act, in which little in the way of action takes place. It depicts four separate bedrooms in which the main characters are settled in for the night. The audience sees all four and eavesdrop on their private bedtime conversations and thoughts. While the Nixons (morosely) and the Maos (playfully) chat about the struggles of the past, Kissinger is seducing a young Chinese girl and Chou En-Lai grumbles that all is futile. In the opera house, this act can be amazingly dull after all the action of the second act, where there is a near-riot at the formal banquet.
Here for once, the camera take you right in to the faces of the characters and the reflections and private thoughts became enthralling. The tear running down Janis Kelly’s (as Pat Nixon) cheek would be invisible to even the front row seats at the Met. But we saw it in a dramatic closeup in the movie house. Here, it was as real a portrayal of restrained frustration, much like Meryl Streep would do.
The landing of Air Force One on the stage at the Met has been heralded as a coup de théâtre. I didn’t get it whatsoever. First of all, the plane was slowly lowered to the stage like some Vaudeville flat, when a real plane would have taxied on from the side wings. Secondly, when the door opened, you could clearly see the trees on the painted scrim behind. Perhaps it was meant to be allegorical and purposely unrealistic, but it was a big disappointment to me.
Here's a snippet from the production:
►There will be an encore of Nixon in China at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 2, at the following local theaters: AMC Northpark Center 15 (Dallas), Cinemark 17 (Dallas), Galaxy Theatre (Dallas), AMC Mesquite 30, Cinemark 14 Cedar Hill, AMC Parks At Arlington 18, Vista Ridge Mall (Lewisville), Tinseltown Movies 17 (Grapevine), Cinemark West Plano, Cinemark 12 Town Center (Mansfield), Cinemark 12 Rockwall, Cinemark 24 (The Legacy, Plano), Fossil Creek (ForT Worth), AMC Palace 9 (Fort Worth), Cinemark Allen 16, Movies 14 (Burleson) and Cinemark 14 (Denton). Call your local theater ahead for tickets as these screening sometimes sell out.
►The rest of Live at the Met HD season is:
- Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride (1pm Feb. 26, 6:30pm March 16) 2 and a half hours
- Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (1pm March 19, 6:30pm April 6) 4 hours
- Rossini's Le Comte Ory (1pm April 9, 6:30pm April 27) 3 hours
- Strauss' Capriccio (1pm April 23, 6:30pm May 11) 3 hours
- Verdi's Il Trovatore (1pm April 30, 6:30pm May 18) 3 hours
- Wagner's Die Walküre (noon May 14, 6:30pm June 1) 5 and a half hours