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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Nixon In China

(Ed. Note: This is a preview of the Met's staging of Nixon in China.
To read a full review, go to this link.)

"There is an old Vulcan proverb. 'Only Nixon could go to China.'"
--Captain Spock, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
The Nixons arrive on the Spirit of '76. From the English National Opera production.
Photo by Alistair Muir, © 2006 English National Opera
On February 2, the Metropolitan Opera presents the first of six performances of John Adams' revolutionary opera. There's no mystery or allegory here: Nixon in China is about Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing (then Peking) in 1972. The opera premiered in 1987, bringing historic events to the operatic stage in a then-record 15 years.


Like many of the Met's newer stagings, this is a shared production, directed by the iconoclastic Peter Sellars. It was first seen at the English National Opera in 2006. James Maddalena, who sang the title role in the premiere, is Nixon. The composer conducts.

John Adams is an American minimalist. He builds music from small two or three-note melodic cells, creating a texture through repetition of woodwinds, strings, and even percussion. The score of Nixon is his best-known work. It is also among his most robust, with heavy, even Wagnerian brass figures, thrilling choral writing and a bravura part for the baritone in the title role.

The opera tells the story of Nixon's visit, accompanied by his wife Pat and Henry Kissinger. Act I retells the arrival of the President's party in China and his cryptic meeting with Mao Tse-tung. Act II focuses on Pat Nixon and her visit to an agricultural installation, followed by a night at the Chinese Opera where the American party is entertained by a socalist drama written by Madame Mao. In Act III, the historic peace accord is reached, and the characters express their doubts about their roles on the stage of history.

Nixon broke new ground in 1987 when it premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Houston Grand Opera. Its success reinforced the idea that opera could be about contemorary political situations or post-World War II events. Its arrival at the Met is a significant milestone for artistic achievement and for contemporary opera, and it promises to be an exciting evening.

Recordings Overview:
There are two major recordings of Nixon in China. The first, recently reissued, features the premiere cast accompanied by the Orchestra of St. Luke's under the baton of Dutch conductor Edo de Waart. This set is recommended for listeners who want to experience James Maddalena's portrayal of the 37th President first-hand.

The second, released on Naxos in 2009 is a live recording from Denver, Colorado. Robert Orth sings the title role, and Marin Alsop conducts. Ms. Alsop takes a more lyrical approach to John Adams' score, stretching out the textures to create an operatic feel. Both are recommended.

On February 12, Nixon in China will be presented as a Live in HD Broadcast at movie theaters across the United States. Like most of the Met's recent essays into filming their operas, the broadcast will eventually be released on DVD.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.