In February of 1972, President Richard Nixon made an historic trip to China. I remember a lot about the second grade, including the time Miss Fossum called me a louse, but I don't remember Mr. Nixon's trip to China. In 1987, John Adams's--the composer, not the President--and Alice Goodman's opera Nixon in China, telling the story of the historic visit, was first performed by the Houston Grand Opera. In February of 2011, it was performed for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera. After seeing the HD broadcast on Feb. 12, I can only say I hope it enters the Met's permanent repertoire.
I've written before about my fear and suspicion of any music written after The Day the Music Died*. And it's true I didn't know much of the music of Mr. Adams, except for having heard snippets that inclined me to agree with the NY Times reviewer who wrote after the 1987 Nixon in China premiere, "Mr. Adams does for the arpeggio what McDonald's did for the hamburger." I don't know whether I would choose to listen to any of his music outside of a theatrical context--remember, boys and girls, I'm a bel canto (and before) bear--but I have to say it all came together and worked for me. And work it did! From the arrival of the Nixon party on Air Force One to the meeting with Chairman Mao to the amazing ballet in Act II to the final scene--it was all simply stunning. Not necessarily for visual effects--it's not Zefirelli's Turandot, after all--but the way everything worked together.
I wish I could name a standout among the six main characters, but I can't. All were excellent singing actors. Kathleen Kim's Chian Ch'ing (Mrs. Mao) was amazing, both in her stratospheric singing, written deliberately to be shrill, and in Chian Ch'ing's determination to pursue her agenda. Russell Braun's Chou En-lai was heartbreaking, given the fact he was dying at the time of the visit, and we saw the physical pain in Braun's face and bearing. He was also the best of the male singers, to my ears. Richard Paul Fink as Henry Kissinger was also a wonder, particularly in Act II. Robert Brubaker as Mao Tse-tung nobly sang that stentorian part while crouched like the very old man Mao was at the time.
The Nixons were both Met debutants. James Maddalena sounded tired, but inhabited the character of Nixon. As creator of the role almost 25 years ago, Maddalena has sung Nixon in more productions than any other man, and can bring shades of subtlety to Nixon that are at times difficult to watch but always very true to the character. His last act was heartbreaking. Janis Kelly's Pat Nixon also brought tears, as she struggled to make sense of the enormity of the day. Her singing is quite beautiful. I was moved to tweet during one of the intermissions "I never thought I'd say this, but I love Pat Nixon!"
I can not say enough about the ballet in Act II. The choreography of Mark Morris and the dancing of the two principal dancers (unnamed on any web site I can find, and of course we don't get printed programs at the HD broadcasts) and the ensemble simply took my breath away. The event in history was the attendance of the party at the Chinese opera to see a propaganda piece called "The Red Detachment of Women", but this was a ballet setting of the same story. As the main characters are each drawn into the ballet we are riveted and can't bear to turn away. After the end of Act II I was all verklempt!
I can not fail to mention the excellent trio of Ginger Costa-Jackson, Teresa S. Herold and Tamara Mumford as secretaries to Mao. I think their names were Patty, Maxine and Laverne, but don't quote me on that.
The superb job the Met chorus will do in any opera goes without saying, and of course they did not disappoint; and the orchestra, under Mr. Adams, lived up to its extremely high standard.
There are two more performances of Nixon in China--February 15 and 19--and an encore HD broadcast on March 2. I highly recommend seeing it. I intend to see the encore performance of the HD broadcast myself.
*No, not February 3, 1959, the day Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and a few others died in a plane crash, but rather November 29, 1924, when Mr. Puccini left this world for the next. OK, maybe it was on life support for another 25 years, until Mr. R. Strauss died.
Oh, and John Adams is a real cutie.