John Adams Defrosts Nixon at The Met

02/08/2011 4:00 AM |

Nixon in China
Music by John Adams
Libretto by Alice Goodman
Directed by Peter Sellars
Choreographed by Mark Morris

Copious tensions define John Adams' titanic opera Nixon in China (now at the Metropolitan Opera in Peter Sellars' classic, tremendous production): chiefly among them, the conflict between historical-cultural forces, capitalism and communism—replayed in the lobby, where copies of The Little Red Book were for sale beside issues of Opera News—and that between the different ways we process history and cultural difference—between the public and the private, headline news and back room palaver. Co-commissioned by BAM and written between 1985 and 1987, the opera was Adams' first, and inaugurated his career-long interest in adapting recent history (what would come to be called his "CNN Operas"), first and most recently seen at the Met in 2008's production of Doctor Atomic, which chronicles the Manhattan Project. This opera, conducted here by Adams himself (who received vigorous applause), explores Nixon's historic 1972 visit to America's Cold War foe; throughout, zig-zagging musical motifs overlap anxiously, while an almost endlessly pounding rhythm evokes a mix of menace and dread: the unease reflects the tension that underlies the ostensible civility of the diplomatic detente, underscored by Nixon's jagged stuttering upon alighting from Spirit of 76.

The differences between the two sides are striking: the Americans are unendingly polite—flattering, obsequious—speaking (well, singing) in inoffensive platitudes, while the Chinese officials wax philosophically with little concern for punctilio. Mao (Robert Brubaker), whom Adams endows with a comically high, Sancho Panza-esque timbre, ruminates through the cynicism of age on the corruptibility of revolution; his speech (er, song), from the libretto by poet Alice Goodman, is inflected with the sorts of mystically cryptic flapdoodle that Adams adores. (That is, they're not unlike, for example, the Native American perspective presented in Doctor Atomic.) In contrast, Nixon, sung jowly by the excellent James Maddalena, who originated the role almost 25 years ago, obsesses over media and history, with the shallow ways he'll be perceived and remembered. Acknowledging this emphasis on the superficial, Adams inflects Nixon's music with popular, relatively trivial American idioms, picking up where Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti left off—there are hints of rock n' roll, smoky jazz and torch-song pop in Nixon's baritone arias.

Acts I and II play out largely in the public eye; the media veil that determines the action and obscures the heart of these acts is lifted in the third, in which the political dissolves into the personal: Kissinger groans for a toilet, Pat reminisces about pre-presidency penny pinching, Mao dances, his wife swears, and a sweaty Nixon recounts PTO horrors. Here, Adams and Goodman reveal troubled, broken men—consumed with doubt, fear and regrets—and the put-upon women beside them; it lends a sinister edge of classical intrigue to recent history, bestowing the heft of myth onto the politically quotidian. The whole opera grapples with similar conflicts: we see an airplane land on stage, huge stone elephants, extravagant galas, but we also see the characters in bed, away from the television cameras. Nixon in China is about nothing less than the conflict between spectacle and its antithesis, expressed in the conflicting forces of the modern theater and the contemporary theatricality of politics. Like Verdi did centuries prior, the creators use opera to enrich our understanding of history—and to restore humanity to the larger-than-life characters that occupy its annals.

Nixon in China plays again at the Met on February 9, 12, 15 and 19. More info here. You can also watch a late 1980s broadcast of Nixon in China on YouTube: it's the same production currently at the Met, with some of the same cast. Part One is here.

(photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)