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At Long Last Nixon!

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
02/02/2011 -  & February 5, 9, 12, 15, 19, 2011
John Adams: Nixon in China
James Maddalana (Nixon), Janis Kelly (Pat Nixon), Robert Brubacher (Mao Tse-tung), Russell Braun (Chou En-lai), Kathleen Kim (Chiang Ch’ing), Richard Paul Fink (Henry Kissinger), Ginger Costa-Jackson (First Secretary), Teresa S. Herold (Second Secretary), Tamara Mumford (Third Secretary), Kanji Segawa and Haruno Yamazaki (Solo Dancers)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, John Adams (Conductor)
Peter Sellars (Production), Adrianne Lobel (Set Designer), Dunya Ramicova (Costume Designer) James Ingalls (Lighting Designer), Mark Morris (Choreographer), Mark Grey (Sound Designer)

K. Kim (© Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera)

The excitement in the lobby and then in the auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera was almost palpable. It was the sort of atmosphere that one associates with the opening night of the season, not with the house debut of a 24-year old opera. But this was no ordinary opera: Nixon in China is surely one of the central works of contemporary opera. Its composer, John Adams, was making his Met debut as conductor. Its director, Peter Sellars, was also making his house debut. And, of course, the subject – the wary rapprochement of two great countries, one young and one very, very old – has gained even more resonance and importance (economically, militarily, scientifically and culturally) as the years have passed. The house was full and, at least where I was sitting, almost no one left early. Indeed, at the end, the festive atmosphere that began the evening reasserted itself. Just after the brilliant and poignant soliloquy by tenor Russell Braun as Chou, with his voice and the Met orchestra subsiding into silence at the evocation of great forces spent, perhaps on a futile quest, the audience broke into prolonged and enthusiastic applause. Nevertheless, the final meditative mood of the third act when the public world of act one was displaced by the private realm of dreams and nightmares lingered in my mind long after I had left the house.

Nixon was a committed and calculating cold warrior who rose to fame by obsessively rooting out communists (and alleged communists) from government. With his burnished conservative credentials, he was perfectly positioned to open the door to China. He was media savvy and also much preoccupied with his legacy. Indeed his personal and political catastrophe, Watergate, arose from his determination to document, via the White House tapes, every word and every deed of his presidency. It was these tapes – the raw material of his history – that became the “smoking gun” for prosecutors. Nixon was driven from the White House in disgrace just two years after his triumphant journey to China.

The opera is not a documentary in any sense of the word, containing as it does a great deal of irony and even touches of surrealism in both the libretto and the score. Yet it wonderfully reflects Nixon’s obsession with news; indeed, he sings about its power and his fascination with it as soon as his airplane touches down on Chinese soil. It was the mythic dimension of this confrontation of two cultures that caught the imagination of director Peter Sellars. In an extraordinarily atypical succession of events, it was Sellars who set the opera in motion. He approached both John Adams and then Alice Goodman, whom he asked to write the libretto. Nixon in China premiered in Houston in 1987. Since then, there have been several productions including a seminal one at the English National Opera in 2000. The ENO 2006 revival is the staging that has made its way to the Met.

In the title role, an obviously indisposed James Maddalena, in his long overdue Met debut, created an absolutely uncanny portrait of Richard Nixon. It was all there – the physical and psychological awkwardness, the self-pity, even the paranoia. Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon delivered a vocally stunning and enormously touching portrayal. Here was a woman with both a warm heart and an endearing lack of sophistication. Her confusion of illusion (the ballet) and reality was deliciously funny. Kelly’s Pat displayed great tenderness toward her husband, most poignantly in her gestures of comfort in act three, as he relived memories of his own military service and then of Vietnam and the soldiers he sent to war and to their death.

Russell Braun as Chou turned in the best vocal performance of the evening. He sang with a rich, resonant baritone, beautiful phrasing and exemplary diction. Robert Brubacher as Mao gave an amazing performance as a geriatric zealot, complete with acrobatic physical contortions He negotiated the punishing tessitura with great aplomb. Another superb performance was turned in by Kathleen Kim as Chiang Ch’ing, the wife of Mao Tse-tung. Her coloratura was virtually flawless and her implacable willfulness utterly terrifying. For those of us in the audience who remembered her as the darling Olympia from last season’s Hoffmann, the transformation was stunning. She was simply marvelous.

Oddly, in the midst of this mythic tale with a rich ironic overlay, Adams and Goodman gave us a buffo character – Henry Kissinger. Portrayed in the play within the opera, Richard Paul Fink as a Kissinger look alike was the sex- crazed, whip wielding overseer; both Nixons mused that he did look rather familiar! Later, as Kissinger, he was similarly sexually ravenous – an allusion no doubt to the real Kissinger’s reputation as a ladies’ man and his oft-quoted remark that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

The choreography by Mark Morris was splendid. The transmutation from a ballet about exploitation into the horror and mayhem that was the cultural revolution was visually stunning and also packed quite an emotional punch.The Met chorus was terrific, particularly in the opening refrain “The people are the heroes now.” I suspect that this evocation of the nameless masses of China, and their Herculean and largely unacknowledged labors, had special resonance for those of us who have visited China in recent years and seen the momentous transformation first hand. The marvelous Met orchestra seemed inspired by the presence of the composer in the pit. The repetitive scales evoked the relentless march of history. The rhythmic variety and punch, with a jazz flavor, had tremendous energy and drive. The orchestra beautifully handled the shift in the musical mood from stately to raucous and finally to elegiac.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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