Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Tricky Dick

February 13, 2011

Janis Kelly and James Maddalena
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2011

The latest installment in The Metropolitan Opera's shoulda-woulda-coulda season arrived this month with the premiere of John Adam's Nixon in China. This much discussed premiere of Adams' 1987 signature work, which has been seen just about everywhere else by now follows a similar strategy to the company's recent, new production of La Traviata . Like Willy Decker's well-regarded 2005 Salzburg vision of Verdi, the Met elected to reproduce the landmark premiere production of Nixon wholesale including many of the key players from that auspicious run in Houston. Director Peter Sellars was on hand as was composer John Adams who is conducting this run including the performance I saw on Saturday. The original Nixon, James Maddalena, starred again in the title role.

But times have changed and there were many reminders of this all around. Maddalena's voice is not what it was and he struggled in some of the higher stretches of the part. The audience has changed as well. On Saturday, I saw Madeleine Albright in the audience and overheard her reflecting with a companion on the treatment of Kissinger in the work. That fact may be more evidence that Nixon in China has achieved some sort of canonical status than the work's appearance on the Met stage in and of itself. And yet all this reasoned debate and sanctioned approval couldn't get around that same ersatz feeling from the earlier La Traviata run. Nixon seemed like more of a wish about where this company should have been twenty years ago than an actual statement about where it's headed now.

Of course, not every new production needs to encapsulate the entirety of a company's or an individual's vision. Sometimes a Nixon is just a Nixon. And with the Met's resources, this one had many things to recommend it. Foremost among these was an orchestra and chorus the quality of which it hasn't likely seen before. No wonder Adams was keen to conduct this run. Who can blame him for wanting to be at the center of hearing this ensemble play his music first hand? And although he still did not convince me that he is the preeminent interpreter of his own work here anymore than he has elsewhere, it was lovely to hear. There's been a lot of grousing again about Adam's preference to mic and mildly amplify his singers, but I still don't get what the fuss is. I've heard worse "natural" sound, and I've heard better.

The rest of the cast had many excellent vocal performances from Robert Brubaker's Mao and Russell Braun's Chou En-lai to Janis Kelly's Pat Nixon. Kathleen Kim gave a magnificent turn as the fiery and authoritarian Madame Mao. Richard Paul Fink was a particularly unsavory Kissinger in another completely committed performance. The intentionally two dimensional set design looked good to me as well, despite there being some lack of punch to the closing numbers of the first two acts. But Nixon is equally about the hallucinatory as well, and Adams and Sellars clearly reveled in the off-kilter version of the world they generate in Act III. And crazy, in and of itself, can sometimes be enough to justify a work or performance and the Met's new/old Nixon in China is often satisfying if not overwhelmingly so. The question is, now what's next?


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