Nixon in preview
There were a disproportionate number of young people at the Met today—even younger than me, which is really young. That made me happy and smile while filing in line to enter the auditorium. Hopefully this is the next generation of undying fans and queens about to plunge into a “new” world of opera spearheaded by John Adams‘ Nixon in China from the 80s: a MET premiere no less!
But let’s get to the dish of this dress.
Adams’ entrance was greeted by a loud ovation, true to the spirit of the work, welcoming an member of American mythos into the podium of America’s Opera house.
Immediately there was a faux pas: the curtain was raised and it immediately began to lurch. Up and down, up and down. It then remained, I would say, about 3/5 of the way to the top of the proscenium, exposing the grim-looking chorus. I didn’t know, at least until later, whether this position of the curtain was a malfunction or an actual part of the production. The chorus was good in its command of the language–I had little need to look at the Titles in English, which was an accomplishment, though there were still parts where I had to sneak a peek.
The singing was uniformly good coming from all of the principals. James Maddalena had a vibrant and warm baritone that did not feel too pointy or barky for me; it felt strong and secure, with a jitteriness that I have always associated with Nixon’s political and personal character from contemporary American lore. Richard Paul Fink‘s Kissinger was also a pleasure to watch and listen to, giving a lot of himself into his acting and singing. God knows he was never inaudible, plus he wasn’t shy about girating on a Chinese dancer during the Act 2 dance sequence where he played “Henry Kissinger playing the part of sexually-abusive Chinese landowner.”
Janis Kelly, I thought, was adorable and perhaps one of the best parts of this production, as Pat Nixon. From where I was sitting, not far from the stage, she looked like Cloris Leachman mixed in with Debbie Reynolds, with that coiffed, blond wig and stature. She was able to mix the “housewife” persona of the mid-20th century and the persona of America’s First Lady: neurotic, romantic, wistful, dignified, and pill-popping. Her “This is prophetic” was moving and well-sung.
Robert Brubaker‘s Mao was a surprise. A heldentenor singing the role of this crippled man—more on this “cripple”-ness later—in such a high tessitura was a little ringing in the ear, but he carried it off. Loud, loud, loud!
Now, Kathleen Kim was also in the same league as Kelly as one of the stars of the show. Her coloratura and pointed delivery for “I am the wife of Mao Ze Dong” was one of two highlights of the show for me–the first one being Pat Nixon’s aria—culminating in a final moving tableau of the Chinese revolting. Her voice and acting all got the point across: The ways in which women during the Communist revolution in China had very few ways of climbing the political echelon, and she found out how. Nice high D’s coming from Kim.
The worrisome part of the production seemed to be the direction, which is difficult to judge on a dress rehearsal, but still. There were moments when I thought that the movements were just pointless, like at the beginning when the chorus is singing about their discipline with everyone facing the audience. Then some members of the chorus move off, and just walk to the back, then walk back to the front, at the same position, with little to no point, I thought.
The big red curtain became a huge part of the production, becoming a mode of focusing the attention of the audience to certain parts of the stage. For now, due to the mishaps that happened at the beginning with the curtain, I can’t help but associate the curtain with “tacky” but I am so willing to be corrected on that by members of the cher public.
The production relied on backdrops ala Ravenswood Castle from the Zimmerman Lucia which I thought could have worked had they fixed the blocking. There was one point where the Summer Palace backdrop placed the palace on top of the tree branches.
The scene with the dance for the Red Detachment of Women was a joy, though confusing for me. The members of the chorus, Pat, Henry, Dick, and Madame Mao were seated facing the audience. The background behind them changed regularly with more drop-downs that were evident as fabric. It took me a while to realize that the backdrop was meant to be viewed as the backdrop for the show within the show.
Mao’s disability also vanished come Act 3, though not after coming down from an opening in his iconic portrait’s mouth via the same tarmac staircase that was used for the Air Force One landing in Act 1—which received laughs by the way, because of the lightness of the plane compared to the heaviness of the stairs. After that walk down the stairs, Mao was suddenly cured of his disability and started walking normally.