Nixon in China

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Composer: John Adams

Libretto: Alice Goodman

First Produced: Houston, 1987

Present Company: Metropolitan Opera, 2011

Stage Direction: Peter Sellars

Sets: Adrianne Lobel

Costumes: Dunya Ramicova

Lighting: James Ingalls

Choreography: Mark Morris

Video Director: Peter Sellars

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus & Ballet

Conductor: John Adams



Richard Nixon – James Maddalena

Pat Nixon – Janis Kelly

Mao Tse Tung – Robert Brubaker

Madame Chiang Ch’ing – Kathleen Kim

Chou En Lai – Russell Braun

Henry Kissinger – Richard Paul Fink

Nancy T'ang - Ginger Costa-Jackson



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-25

Opera: 22.53 GB

Bit Rate: Low (9~18 Mbps)

English DTS-HD MA 5.1

English PCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish & Portuguese

Region: All

Opera runtime: 176 minutes (less 17 min. intermissions)

Nonesuch, November 2012



Conception & Staging: A

Costumes: A

Casting: A

Singing: A-

Orchestra: A-

Music Direction: A-

Video Direction: C

Image: C

Audio: B+

Extras Features: B-

Recommendation: B



It was nearly thirty years ago that theatre director Peter Sellars came up with the idea that would become Nixon in China. Sellars approached then 38-year old minimalist composer John Adams to write his first opera. It was a strange idea, challenging and inspired in equal parts: to stage a work that would, so far as it could, recreate in operatic terms, that most extraordinary geo-political event: President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February of 1972. Here he was, the world’s most visible, most rabid anti-communist and “leader of the free world,” as yet untainted by Watergate, in conversation with the man who forged a nation from the train wreck that was the Chinese revolution. From the American and European perspective, Mao Tse-Tung’s Cultural Revolution, despite and because of its Borg-like organization, was the greatest potential threat to Western economic hegemony. Nixon rightly saw that “we” needed to get a foot in the door or have it rolled over.



On this trip Nixon was accompanied by his wife, the stoic and indomitable Pat, without whose presence there would have been no opera, and his National Security Advisor (and soon to be Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger. On Mao’s side was PRC Premier Zhou En-lai and, backstage, so to speak, Madame Mao, Chiang Ch’ing, the perfect dramatic antagonist to Mrs. Nixon. It’s a knockout story, and so it was as an opera, and still is. . . that is, if you can warm to the music and, specifically to Adams’ declamatory singing style.



Critical Press

New York Magazine

When Air Force One lowered onto the stage of a packed Metropolitan Opera last week [January, 2011] and a familiar figure appeared in the doorway with his jerky wave, Nixon in China completed its journey into the heart of American opera. That’s where it belongs. . . In his first stage work, Adams showed that the pared-down toolbox of standard harmonies, chugging rhythms, unembellished scales, and patient repetitions could yield an old-fashioned bone-and-gristle drama. . . ” Nixon in China embraced memory and foreboding, fantasy and melancholy. Adams has continued to tackle the murderously operatic twentieth century in other stage works, always with abundant syncopations, built-up layers, and teeming orchestration, but never with the subtle eloquence of his first attempt. . . Adams demonstrates his power to depict a private crisis in a public place, to thicken an atmosphere with a juddering blast, to follow the contours of a character’s emotions. It helps that orchestras have learned to negotiate the composer’s ever-shifting mixtures of relentlessness and refinement. The Met’s marvelous ensemble, intimate with Adams’s style from the experience of Doctor Atomic two years ago, gives breath to rising, repeating scales that look primitive on the page, finds the flexibility within those lattice structures, and brings out shades and highlights among the primary hues. – Justin Davidson



Wall Street Journal

Adrianne Lobel's set has a stark, handmade look. A huge cutout of Air Force One descending from the flies (accompanying one of the great orchestral moments of the opera) and a giant portrait of Mao represent the public faces of these world leaders; their private scenes take place in small, plain beds. Dunya Ramicova's costumes are similarly unadorned, with all the Chinese women in drab, desexualizing trouser suits; only the blond Pat Nixon is peacock-like in red and purple. James F. Ingalls's lighting evokes the harsh cold of a Beijing winter and the public glare of the banquet hall. By contrast, Mark Morris's choreography for "The Red Detachment of Women" is, in this context, hilariously over the top, matching the lush, Hollywood-type scoring with an elaborate ballet of female warrior cadres in pointe shoes battling their oppressors, a scene that turns into a melée suggesting the Cultural Revolution. – Heidi Waleson




For this performance, the Met has drawn on several members of the crew that brought Nixon in China to life in Houston in 1987: theatre director, Peter Sellars, set designer Adrienne Lobel, costume designer Dunya Ramicov, and lighting designer James Ingalls. Mark Morris was also on board to restage his choreography for the “Red Detachment of Women.”  The man who created the role of Nixon, James Maddalena, is also here; the rest of the cast, while not associated with the opera at the start, is every bit as secure in their roles, and insofar as the singing is concerned, even more so than Mr. Maddalena. The composer himself conducts (for the first time at The Met.)


I rather liked the sets and designs and, especially the way Sellars stages the three female translator/secretaries. I’m not so happy with the staging of the ballet, however, with the official audience on risers stage right. It looks authentic in an historical sense, but their presence there neither complements the dance nor competes with it sufficiently. The arrival of AF One is inspired as is the weeping poster of Mao.




My opinion of the opera varies from accepted critical judgment, which is that Nixon in China benefits more from its extraordinary scenario and from the fact that American opera has never been a serious force on the world stage (with apologies to Candide, Porgy and Bess, Vanessa and, if you’ll permit stretching the point a little, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd), And so Adams had the benefit of opportunity as well as the “endorsement” of political events on his side. . . which is not to say there isn’t a great deal to admire in his work. Adams is nothing if not novel and scholarly. By the time of Nixon in China there was only one other minimalist composer of large works in the public consciousness: Philip Glass, whose opera Einstein on the Beach was composed ten years earlier than Nixon. The influences are obvious. The music for the arrival of AF One is right out of Koyaanisqatsi. Other influences are equally apparent, not least, and for no reason that I could fathom, was Bernard Hermann’s score for North by Northwest, which crops up more often than I was comfortable with. I’d like to believe that it the association was entirely unconscious on the composer’s part.



Despite the absence of traditional lyricism, every character in Nixon is represented by a different style, or melody if you will. The placement of the voice for each character is consistent and recognizable. My complaint is that the vocal material rarely measures up to the orchestral writing, though even that is not always interesting. The most frustrating instance occurs with “The Chairman Dances,” a wonderfully dynamic work for orchestra that the composer derived from the opera while he was still working on it in 1985, that very nearly disappears in the context of the opera. All the more peculiar when we realize that Adams himself is conducting this performance.



For the most part (the exceptions stand out, such as the last part of Chou En-lai’s speech at the end of the first act, most of Pat Nixon’s soliloquy at the start of the second, and a good deal of the last act, especially the bits between Dick and Pat), that while certain arrival points in the vocal lines seem proper and understandable, the notes in between strike me as arbitrary and of little relationship to the orchestral writing. In eighteenth and nineteenth century Western music terms, it is as if the notes of the melody are vertically concordant with the harmony, but whose horizontal direction over time takes no notice of it. This is, in large part, due to Adam’s minimalist instrumental writing which enjoys an astonishingly static harmonic rhythm, and therefore he feels he has been given a degree of independence of vocal to instrumental lines. I suppose that independency exists, but that doesn’t mean it always works.



In Adams’ favor, however, I admit to a certain cumulative effect that supersedes the detail, especially the half-hour long final act, where some really good opera is happening. The trick, I think, is to attend to the text while letting the melody sort of glide by. The difficulty is that the vocal lines don’t make that very easy. Consider, for example, all those clipped, repeated words and phrases exchanged between Mao and Nixon in their initial joust. We readily understand the dramatic significance, but Adams keeps at it, turning exposition into development that either tries our patience or underscores our impression of character, depending on how you see it. Supported by Peter Sellars’ idiosyncratic video direction, Nixon in China makes its effect in a series of alternating public and private tableaux, the former underscorig every iconic photo opportunity archived in our collective memories.



Mr. Maddalena, who has made the role of the beleaguered president his own since the premier, struck me as labored, especially in his opening speech. I tried to attribute it to jet lag, having just landed on Air Force One. Curiously, he finds his voice by the last act, where, despite - and in part, because - of his apparent discomfort, Maddalena’s acting and singing conveys the man – nostalgic, vulnerable and political. Without exception the rest of the cast is superb: Janis Kelly’s Pat Nixon, a woman unhappily affected by the strange third world she finds herself, one that doesn’t make it any easier to find a sympathetic heart for what her husband is going through. Their exchange in the final act comes as close as anything in this opera to honest drama. As to that, Russell Braun’s Chou En Lai is achingly portrayed as a man apart, the weight of political and personal consistency: overpowering, while the Chairman and Madame Mao pontificate, scream and frolic. Richard Paul Fink has a dual role here: Henry Kissinger and his effigy, the abusive landlord in the bizarre ballet that occupies so much of the second act. There is something oddly buffo about his characterization that I rather liked. Kathleen Kim’s hysterical Madame Chiang Ch’ing pretty much steals every scene she’s in. Mao’s translator/secretaries are a wonderful idea - brilliantly, robotically executed by Ginger Costa-Jackson, Teresa S. Herold and Tamara Mumford.




Nixon in China may be the first Blu-ray opera from Nonesuch, a company that made its name in the early 1970s by offering recordings of European orchestras made by European studios, mastered with care in the U.S. onto decent vinyl at budget prices. The market responded enthusiastically and quickly made way for Turnabout and London Treasury in the U.S. as well as giving previously underrated LPs from Vox and MHS a boost. Here, on this Blu-ray, Nonesuch relies on a source with unimpeachable credentials – the Metropolitan Opera – and aims their product for the budget minded buyer. Blu-ray operas are not cheap, typically running between $30-40. This one can be had from Amazon/UK for a mere £14 and Amazon/US for $25, and they throw in a DVD version of the opera for good measure.



Alas, the end result is not nearly as good as their LP counterparts from yesteryear. To begin with the Blu-ray disc squeezes the three-hour opera into less than 23 GB of a single-layer disc. The German label, C Major, is equally stingy, but their discs do not suffer from such a want of resolution and brightness. The Nonesuch comes perilously close to noise, but I think it’s just dim, as per James Ingalls’ lighting design. In any case, I am not sensitive to any transfer anomalies. The difference between the DVD image and the Blu-ray, while apparent, does not make for a strong case in favor of the latter. Check out the faces of the chorus in this screen capture. You’d be hard pressed to tell one from the other. On the other hand, there are some impressively detailed close-ups. . . which brings me to the question of the video direction. . .






Met Opera in HD is a somewhat different experience than other operas on Blu-ray I’ve run across. For one thing, they seem to have remote cameras everywhere - or, rather, there is no shortage of angles and compositions left unframed. They even shoot from far stage right and left, though near the lip of the stage. And close-ups! My, there must to be a papal bull that there be close-ups - lots of them, and often. My feeling is that their use to this degree seriously alters the experience of what opera is all about, which is, after all, a staged experience that an audience takes in from a comfortable distance. Less comfortable is Sellars’ pore-by-pore inspection of faces, which he touts in the interview, and I certainly don’t see how it helps to see how a wig is applied over the forehead, neatly executed as it might be.



The best and worst case for such a decision comes right at the start of the opera where the People are strung out clear across the stage in a huge, but poorly resolved wide shot. After we see them thus, for the great majority of the opening chorus, Sellars focuses on close-ups of each person, differentiating them as individuals. The effect, then, is 180 degrees from his own stage direction, which, from the point of view of the audience, is to present the People as a mass since they can hardly be expected to tell one person from another, especially in dim light. At the other end of the opera, I simply don’t understand how or why Sellars feels it is correct to end on a fadeout of a close-up of Chou En-lai. Again, the perspective of the audience is undermined. Isolation, if that’s what he’s after, is best realized on an empty stage, devoid of light except for a spot on the individual, then fadeout, and that’s what the audience sees. But if our home theatre screen is filled with the image of that single person while the camera moves in until a fadeout, the effect is exactly the opposite. Clearly Peter Sellars sees this video as a very different viewing experience, and I can see how he might want to take advantage of the situation. After all, no video of a stage work is as the audience sees it.




The two audio mixes on the DVD are so different from each other that it’s hard to believe either one of them is correct. At least on the Blu-ray, the surround and stereo tracks appear to have been derived from the same source. The uncompressed stereo and surround mixes are both pretty good, the voices always clear and strong, but the orchestral textures not so much as often as I would have expected. The part of the third act that includes the “Chairman Dances” is a true non-event, very possibly by design, but still. . . Moreover, someone is tinkering with the balances during the ballet sequence. When the chorus comments, sometimes they sound smallish and at stage right, as their presence on stage suggests, and at other times they are fat and occupy the whole stage. Even stranger is the fact that the difference in perceived size is unrelated to the number of voices singing at the moment.




The opera itself is interrupted three times with the appearance of Thomas Hampson, whose direct, yet engaging manner is made that much more welcome by his splendiferous voice. We first encounter him in a two-minute prologue, introducing the opera by setting its historical context. Between Acts 1 and 2, the camera moves backstage for thirteen minutes to catch Hampson in brief, but helpful interviews of James Maddalena and Janis Kelly; an effusively complementary Peter Sellars; Set Designer Adrianne Lobel along with Winston Lord, former US Ambassador to China; and an all too fleeting word from John Adams. Hampson reappears for only four-minutes between the second and third acts to speak with Russell Braun (Chou En Lai) and Richard Paul Fink (Henry Kissinger and the Landlord in the ballet). There are also separate three-minute interviews with Robert Brubaker (Mao Tse Tung) and Kathleen Kim (Madame Chiang Ch’ing) as well as the choreographer, Mark Morris. Unlike operas on Blu-ray from other studios, Nonesuch includes a DVD of the opera. Unlike the opera itself, the interviews are not subtitled.




By now it should be clear that I feel Nixon in China is overrated, but an interesting work nonetheless that has reached a kind of exalted status over the years and has many admirers. I know this is heretical, but that’s as I see it. Short term history has already proved me wrong. Most viewers will be content with the video presentation (and have said so on Amazon), but I feel it is substandard due to a ridiculously low bit rate and poor resolution in wide shots. I also have serious questions about Sellars’ video direction that undermines the effect he works so hard to achieve for the Met audience. The drabness of it all is no doubt reflective of the lighting, so that is likely as it should be. Audio is odd and varies in quality within scenes, though it is never poor. Bonus features are ample, and while I am not a fan of interactive interviews, they can be skipped with a flic of the remote. There is, however, no way to watch them in sequence. Nonesuch offers this title on Blu-ray, along with a DVD if that sort of thing is of interest to you, at an absurdly low price.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

March 31, 2013

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