on 11 January 2013
John Adams: Nixon in China, libretto by Alice Goodman, directed by Peter Sellars for the Live in HD Metropolitan Opera production 12.02.2011.
I was not able to see this performance at Verdensteateret (the oldest existing Cinema in Norway) in Romsa/Tromsø at the time, and ordered the Blu-Ray disc that surprisingly also included a DVD version. I have to say that I find this production superb, in fact one of the best opera productions I have seen. To experience an opera conducted by its creator, or at least composer, is unique in itself (excluding, of course any mediocre possibilities, which probably abound, I do not know) this is certainly an opera that I believe will stand the test of time, because for all its contemporarity, it is a timeless work that speak to any time. The music is not boring, as I had feared, but fits the situations amazingly well. The work has enough variety to unfold the possibility of this type of music. It supports and unifies its own artistic universe, and adds to the experience of `contemporary' people. I liked the visual close-up of people in the beginning, and the overall visual impact is excellent. Such a relief to see `contemporary' clothes/costumes that are not `out of time', as in so many recent productions! Dramaturgically it is a good balance between individual characterizations and group/mass scenes, complementing each other. Nixon, for all his negative aspects, deserves credit for the incredible daring and immensely important venture, also well portrayed by Oliver Stone in his film Nixon. By now the excess admiration of Mao has faded largely in China. I saw his coffin when visiting for the first time in 1979, just after the outing of the "Gang of Four" including Chiang Ch'ing, amply characterized here for her cynicism. I am just a bit worried if the ballet in Act 2 scene 2 The Red Detachment of Women was over the top. I have to question whether or not it was as cruel as this, or just a means to show the cruelty of Madame Mao, and consequently the indifference of Mao to the same. Yes, this opera in many ways is a meeting point of much of contemporary political, economical, cultural and social development. To my mind comes the scene from a film where the present HH Dalai Lama meets, as a young man with the cigarette smoking Mao to discuss the imminent occupation of Tibet. It makes the statement made by Mao in the opera that He likes the Rightist movement, rather than the Socialists, and his argumentation for it. That he wants to discuss spiritual and abstract questions rather than terse politics with the Nixons, expose, I believe/fear a slight lack of proper or full statesmanship in American leadership, then and perhaps later as well? A bold questioning perhaps, but I blame it on the opera!
This is not the first time where states of heads meet in an opera; right now I am watching a performance of Montezuma from the Baroque theatre at Bayreuth. Of course there is a great difference between Montezuma versus Cortez & Nixon versus Mao, but the comparison is adequate nonetheless, a meeting of opposites, geopolitically and culturally, etc. (Plan to write a review of that later). Mozart was lucky to have a good librettist in Da Ponte, making just these operas part of the canon, that now Nixon will also partake. Whether or not other opera composers are to be indebted or recognized, I am not sure, but one such is of course the 200th Richard Wagner, who was so concerned with the importance of the text, that he wrote it himself, and in most cases succeeded. Of course he has been held responsible for a lot, but to adjust a famous saying, he should be credited with "I am responsible for what I wrote, not for how it is understood."
In any case, John Adams and Peter Sellars and the rest responsible for this masterpiece, have got a very good librettist; I immediately recognized that. The surprisingly sympathetic presentation of idealistic Chinese sayings in the beginning, "Follow the orders of the poor" and "Don't mistreat the captive foe" moved me deeply, they express true humanity, and not only "Communism", a word most Americans are taught to hate with all their heart, soul, wit, etc., son needless. If they read the bible with all their heart, soul and wit they will discover the same or similar message. So rather than obsessive Christianism, what America need most is a humane version of Communism; that is my bold but honest challenge. During the course of the opera, these sentences are contrasted of course, with the political intentions of the rulers. An eternal contrast between Idealism and Realism, perhaps, but we are obliged to reconcile them. I think that is the message of Nixon in China, as I understand them.
Lastly, I was glad to see the interval interviews and presentation by the sympathetic Thomas Hampson, thanks to all of you!
on 13 July 2013
Dont be fooled for a moment when some of those associated with this work deem it a 'Masterpiece' alongside Verdi and Strauss as the interviews within this disc propound.It certainly is not in that class.
The form and format of the music is very repetitive and sometimes very monotonous in its style. You keep hearing the same approach and rhythms too many times.
But I must add here, that the rendition, singing, choreography, videography, recording and post production touches are simply Brilliant.
The beginning and much of the First Act seems fresh and there is a lot happening in the dramatization and staging, but has a tendency to fall away, especially in the solos and monologues that tend to be more like soleloquies.
The Second Act, especially the Ballet with Kissinger thrown in and Mrs Mao's coloratura are definitely the brilliant redeeming features of this Opera.
The Third Act, especially for a first time listener is terribly disjointed thematically, and frankly gets trying first, and boring later. Looks like modernism for the sake of it...
All in all, the brilliant parts of the first and second acts as 'highlights' of this opera will be watched again and again over the years, but as a whole, I doubt if this will feature in a top ten list of American Operas even.
on 16 February 2013
The historic visit to China by Nixon has all the hallmarks of the American President at work. Whilst musically not thrillingly melodious, it is a period piece of musical rendition with Nixon, wife, Kissinger and their Chinese counterparts playing the theatrical role of mutual appreciation to US-China relations. It feels like a tribute to the real Nixon before we have him mired by Watergate. When he arrives in China and exits the aircraft, for example, what is his first concern? The Aria "NEWS, NEWS , NEWS" says much of the man and his concerns. More fun follows about the various state engagements, intimate meetings (particularly the phylosophical exchange between Chairman Mao and Nixon the politician) banquets, and the homely aside with his wife that follow in the plot. It is a most intriguing show.
It was fun to see this opera come to life after being familiar with it on CD. Certainly it makes the experience more emotional on both ends; the humor and wit are much clearer, as are the darker and sadder elements of change and loss.
Peter Sellars, who directed the stage production also guided the filming during a live performance. Sellars relies a great deal on close-ups, only going to wide shots occasionally. I found this surprising, and occasionally annoying, since his own careful theatrical visual compositions get cheated in the process. Also, extreme close-ups are not the most forgiving way of seeing stage wigs and make-up. On the other hand, it was nice to really be able to see the emotions on the singers' faces, and to realize what good actors most of them are. Even though they're playing in a large theater, most are subtle enough that these tight shots don't reveal tremendous over-acting, and give the opera a wonderfully intimate feel. Since a lot of the emotional drama of this opera is really internal, especially for both Richard and Pat Nixon, this close-up approach emphasizes the human as opposed to the spectacular, to strong effect.
On second viewing, the constant close ups seemed even more problematic. It struck me that much of what's going on in the opera is about the counterpoint in simultaneous 'conversations' and interactions. You might have Pat and Richard Nixon on one side of the stage, and Chairman Mao and his wife on the other. Or multiple groups at once in the 'big' scenes, all singing right over each other, 3 and 4 stories occurring simultaneously. But by relying so much on close ups and tight 2 shots, we lose some of the juxtapositions built into the music and staging. It works well in the truly intimate one-on-one scenes, but when there are many people on stage the close ups start to feel like they're interrupting the appreciation of the big picture.
The interviews conducted between acts are also less than thrilling. They tend to be very rushed, not giving time for any thoughtful or complex answers, and the interviewer has an irritating habit of chiming in and cutting off even those brief answers. I found myself skipping the interviews altogether after about the half-way point.