Magazine article Opera Canada

New York

Magazine article Opera Canada

New York

Article excerpt

John Adams s most celebrated work, Nixon in China, isn't a great opera, but in Peter Sellars' original production, modified over two decades and many stages, this fanciful history lesson made for an entertaining (if slightly long-winded) February night at the Metropolitan Opera. In the mid-1980s, when Nixon was written, Adams still had a sense of humor, or at least it was prodded to the fore by two playful collaborators, director Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris. When both of those often-wrayward talents are at their best, as they were at the Met in Nixon's second act, Adams is seen and heard at his best, too. From start to finish it was almost pure pleasure.

For the "almost," blame Janis Kelly, the potential beauties of her big solo turn as Pat Nixon undermined by her watery, acid-capped soprano. This central act takes its cue from older grand operas, with its choruses, its lengthy scena for the leading lady, its equally lengthy ballet, a Rossinian storm sequence and a highflying mad scene for the seam da donna to bring down the curtain. It's all great, theatrical fun.

The outer acts are more problematic. The first starts out well, calling to mind the opening of Samson et Dalila with its chorus of the oppressed, and escalates to real excitement with the arrival of the presidential plane. But while Samson's initial rhythmic squareness and ostinati melt yieldingly as Act I evolves, Nixon hangs on to its chugging motors for over an hour. The orchestras insistent brassy blasts continually obscure the vocal line (even with the singers discreetly amplified) and impede comprehension of Alice Goodman's not very singer-amicable text. Throughout the evening, I understood maybe 20 percent of the words.

That failing is even more crucial in the final act, where five of the principal characters (the sixth, Henry Kissinger, is on extended break in the loo) grapple unintelligibly with their inner demons. But so what? We don't care much about any of them, anyway, the innocents-abroad Americans or the crazily sloganeering Chinese. While Adams has saved some of his best music for this act, there's no sense of a satisfying climax, an eventful story reaching an emotionally compelling end.

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In fact, the opera has no plot, just a series of tableaux of greater or lesser effect. At least this final scene had some truly lovely singing by baritone Russell Braun as Chou En-lai--consistently the evening's most pleasurable vocalist. Robert Bruhaker was a strong vocal presence as Mao and Richard Paul Fink, as Kissinger, brought some real terpsichorean flair to his Simon Legree role in the "Red Detachment of Women" ballet. …

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