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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Opera Review: Nixon In China Has Landed

"If you want to make beautiful music, you must play the black and the white notes together."--Richard M. Nixon

The Nixons (Janis Kelly and James Maddalena) arrive.
Photo by Alastair Muir © 2010 English National Opera
John Adams' Nixon in China arrived last night, taking just 24 years to make the journey from the Brooklyn, (where the opera received its New York premiere) to the big stage of the Met. The straightforward production by Peter Sellars told the story simply and clearly. The composer himself conducted: a minimalist opera played with maximum appeal.

James Maddalena plays Nixon as the ultimate fish out of water from the moment he steps off the plane. In meetings with Mao Tse-Tung, in the banquet scene, and even in his Peking hotel room, his Nixon struggles visibly with his unfamiliar surroundings and his attempts to understand Chinese culture. Mr. Maddalena sings over the enormous orchestra with power, engaging in the all-important physical mannerisms without veering into parody.

Robert Brubaker pulled off the high tessitura of Chairman Mao, adding the dimensions of compelling physicality to show Mao's weakened physical state. He was matched by coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim in the role of Chian Ch'in (Mrs. Mao.) Ms. Kim applied fearless techniques to the dazzling "I am the wife of Chairman Mao" that closes the second act, singing the high F's with laser-like precision and a note of hysteria that recalled Mozart's Queen of the Night.

Baritone Russell Braun was compelling as Chou En-Lai, especially during the Toast that brings the first act to its climax. The house chandeliers came on in this scene, allowing the Party chairman to address the audience directly and adding to the sensation of "you are there."

The Toast is also a good example of an unexpected feature within the score of Nixon: Mr. Adams' decision to create old fashioned soliloquies for his principal characters to comment on the emotional meaning of the opera's action. It's an 18th-century idea re-imagined for the 20th. The choral and ensemble singing in this scene were rhythmically precise, as they were throughout the entire performance.
The cast of Nixon in China.
Photo by Alistair Muir © 2010 English National Opera
As Pat Nixon, Janis Kelly was the focus of Act II. Following her visits to Chinese classrooms, factories, and a pig farm, her big aria, "This is Prophetic!" proved a highlight of the night. She sang with a pleasing intonation that cut smoothly and sharply through the fabric of the score. In the Chinese Opera section, Mrs. Nixon's outrage at the drama staged by Madame Mao (and danced under Mark Morris' expert direction) was an explosive point at the heart of the opera--a demonstration of communication breakdown between the Chinese and American parties.

The third act was the most shocking, and compelling part of the evening. All six main characters sang in an extended, reflective ensemble which included two simulated oral sex acts (both involving the good Chairman) and what might be the first intentional F-bomb dropped on the Met stage during a performance. The opera ends on a questioning note, as Chou En-Lai literally rises from his grave to ask if the historic meeting accomplished anything at all.

Mr. Adams builds walls of sound out of small sonic fragments, treating two or three-note figures as the components of an enormous structure built from Lego® bricks of sound. The work calls for three keyboards, heavy brass, and tremendous orchestral resources to build those walls, and the Met Orchestra responded with an enthusiastic performance.

The score of Nixon uses leitmotivs and orchestration techniques developed by Wagner, in conjunction with the "cultural ear" of Puccini to create an aural clash of East and West. If a choir of saxophones playing jazz next to assimilated Chinese pentatonic melodies sounds like a strange idea, well it is. It originated with Puccini's Turandot.

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