Nixon in China

Cinema Nova has been showing the Met Opera in HD series since its launch a few years ago.

Presented by: New York Metropolitan OperaVenue: Cinema Nova Tuesday, 22 February, 2011
Nixon in ChinaCinema Nova has been showing the Met Opera in HD series since its launch a few years ago. The seasons always contain many well known and popular operas, showcasing singers, orchestras and directors that are unarguably the best of the best. But, for me, the real value of the program lies in the opportunity to experience operas that are rarely, if ever, presented in Australia.
Nixon in China is one such piece, and is a must see for anyone interested in opera, or even theatre for that matter. My disappointment at the mediocrity of much contemporary opera leads me sometimes to the point of giving up hope for the survival of the art form, but Nixon is an antidote to such despair. Long term collaborators Peter Sellars and John Adams, through their intelligent and superlatively creative treatment of a world changing event, successfully answer the perennial question “why opera?” with “this could only be an opera”.
First produced in Houston in1987, Nixon in China has taken 24 years to reach the Met stage, and this production, recorded just two weeks ago, marks 39 years to the month since the historic event of the title. Director Peter Sellars (yes, the one who was simply too big for the Adelaide Festival) suggested the subject matter to Adams and produced the premiere season. Since then the production has not been significantly altered, but progressively tinkered with to take into account changes in the cast plus the varying requirements of opera theatres around the world. This simulcast essentially recreates a 2006 English National Opera production, with adjustments made for the massive stage, expanded chorus, and the extra resources available at the cashed-up Met.
Sellars also directs the simulcast. Its seamless mix of full-stage shots and close-ups left me wondering just how many cameras it took to film this stage production in such detail – and where the hell did they hide them all? More lingering though is admiration for the absolute focus of the performers, keeping in mind that a simulcast leaves no chance for retakes if one is to blink or cough at an inopportune moment.
Running at almost 4 hours (with 2 intervals), this opera would appear to be not for the faint hearted. However my exhaustion at the end owed more to do with the emotional power of the opera than its length. Composer and conductor John Adams, with librettist Alice Goodman, has created an opera that communicates a profound humanism – not easy when you’re dealing with polarising political leaders like Richard (Tricky Dicky) Nixon, Kissinger, Chairman and Madame Mao, and Chinese Premier Chou En-lai.
As with Adams’s other masterpiece, the opera Doctor Atomic (about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project), Nixon in China starts with, then moves beyond the well documented facts of the historical into a poetic imagining of the inner lives of the protagonists. It begins with comparatively theatrical naturalism, accompanied by the now familiar harmonic and rhythmic patterns of Glass inspired minimalism: the staging progressively becomes more surreal, as the music – sometimes surprisingly lyrical – takes on different flavours, including wistful references to the music of the 40s. This all culminates in a moving meditation on the nature, responsibility, and cost of power. The final scene, exploring the doubts and frailty of the leaders, all of whom were on the brink of their political or physical demise, is devastating. I would never have imagined I could be moved to tears of sympathy for such a bunch – but I admit – I wept.
Heading the cast is baritone James Maddalena, who created the title role in 1987. Now in his mid-fifties, Maddelena at times struggles with the prolonged vocal demands of the music, but he embodies the character of Nixon so perfectly it is impossible to imagine any other singer in the role. The other principals unfailingly match Maddelena’s high standards, with spectacular singing and detailed, nuanced acting.
The only criticism I have of the simulcast is the now ubiquitous interviews with the singers as they exit the stage at interval. Akin to thrusting a microphone in to the face of someone who has just swum a 1500m Olympic Final and asking how they feel, these interviews are embarrassing and cringe-making.  I just wish they would leave the poor singers alone so they can get back to their dressing rooms for a pee, or even a stiff drink, if that is what they need. I can see the Met is trying to humanise opera singers in the minds of the public, and it can be interesting to hear these singers talking in accents far removed from their stage personas. Fascinating too are the shots of backstage at the Met between acts. However, in a piece as profound as Nixon in China the interviews are a regrettable interruption of the magic created on stage. Until 3 March, 2011 

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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