JOHN ADAMS: Nixon in China (complete opera), Blu-ray (2012)Performers: Russell Braun (Chou En-lai)/ James Maddalena (Richard Nixon)/ Janis Kelly (Pat Nixon)/ Richard Paul Fink (Henry Kissinger)/ Robert Brubaker (Mao Tse-tung)/ Kathleen Kim (Chiang Chung)/ Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus & Ballet/ John Adams Producer: Peter Gelb Director: Peter Sellars Studio: Nonesuch 532291-2 [11/19/12] Video: 16:9 1080i Full HD Blu-ray + DVD discs Audio: English Dolby TrueHD Surround, Dolby TrueHD Stereo Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese All Regions Length: 177 minutes Rating: ****½
It seems like a dream production; the greatest opera orchestra in the world, a production directed by the man who not only directed the first one, but also came up with the idea to begin with, starring the man who first played the title role, and conducted by the composer himself who also happens to be a very good conductor. The verbiage in the interviews that baritone Thomas Hampson, the host for the show, conducts elicits a response that this is the greatest opera in the last 30 years. Is it? I rather doubt it, though that’s more a late night debate over a few drinks as far as I am concerned. But as it was Adams’s first opera, and he has done many more since then, that sort of confines him to the realm of couldn’t-equal-it-again infamy. And his style changed very much over the years since the quasi-minimalist Nixon, showing that there was indeed life after Glass for composers of that ilk.
But dare I say that Adams had not learned at that time—1987—how to quite tame the minimalist wolf. There is a lot of repetition, perhaps that and rhythmic jauntiness the defining characteristics of the movement, which I guess we can call it at this point, and one sometimes yearns for the frequent beginnings of what sounds like glorious melody on the horizon when it suddenly dissipates into some jarring and simply blaring pseudo-melody, as if the composer had not quite gotten his arms around how to explicitly set texts so that they sounded close to natural speech inflection. If you can discount these caveats, and the fact that Nixon really does come across as a little dated now, and the even more glaring concern that the younger generation doesn’t know what the heck the story is really about or why it mattered then and affects us even now, then there is much to enjoy. The greatest—no. A great opera? Could be.
Here’s why: Nixon, as an opera, takes advantage of what opera naturally does, which is to concentrate on stylized devices that allow us to probe the inner mind behind the outer expression. We do get a great deal of straightforward “reporting” (it was criticized as being a “CNN” opera initially), but we also get to experience, through a montage of dancing and reverie, and singing of inner turmoil and thoughts and feelings and the most intimate expression, what the principals were really feeling at the time of the trip. Of course since then many books have been written, and we know what a pervert Mao really was, and how much of a demon Madame Mao was, and how Pat was so insecure and timid, and certainly it’s tough to not see Nixon in the light of Watergate. But somehow, for a brief while anyway, we are made to understand what a bold move this was on the part of the President, and how Chou En-lai, cruelly suffering from cancer because Mao would not allow him treatment (he did not want to die before Chou) bravely forged forward for the good of his country and in spite of the nutcase he worked for. Truly, this was the watershed moment as one of the great events of the century, and should be regarded as Nixon’s true and important legacy.
The opera is overly long, and I found myself tiring of it in places, but its originality cannot be doubted. Having the original Nixon in James Maddalena is a great advantage dramatically even though the voice is showing some wear, and he sounded tired at times. Russell Braun is a terrific and really solid Chou, while Robert Brubaker’s Mao is positively creepy. Richard Paul Fink plays Kissinger, a most ungrateful role, to the hilt, while Janis Kelly’s Pat is beyond criticism. Perhaps the controlled shrillness of Kathleen Kim’s Madame Mao highlights the middle portion of the opera, her high coloratura strikingly portrayed in the midst of all the male madness. This is an ideal production, no doubt, and we are lucky to have it, replete with splendid sound and close-ups and skillfully-wrought camera angles that we would not normally be privy to in the audience. I can’t imagine it any better. The opera I can, but despite its flaws Nixon in China is a definite landmark of great importance.