Wed, Feb 02, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Resonating from the Great Wall: ‘Nixon in China’ plays the Met

The synopsis of the quirky opera tracks history closely, but the creators imparted an imaginative, even mythic, dimension to their characters’ meditations

By Matthew Gurewitsch  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

“Alice had never attempted anything remotely like Nixon,” Adams said. “It was just one of those miraculous things.”

Nixon’s audience with Mao, Pat Nixon’s excursions to factories and the Ming tombs: The synopsis of Nixon in China tracks history closely, but the creators imparted an imaginative, even mythic, dimension to their characters’ meditations.

Like Adams and Sellars, Goodman read up voluminously on her subject, producing a script that is sometimes slangy and often inspirational. Her word to describe her collaboration with Adams and Sellars is “polyphonic.”

“We disagreed violently about one thing and another, and while some of the disagreements were resolved, others were amicably maintained,” she wrote when the opera was new. “There are places where the music goes against the grain of the libretto and places where the staging goes against the grain of both.”

Sellars, in an essay for the current reissue of the original recording on Nonesuch, places Nixon against the backdrop of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, on one hand, and of his own production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, staged as The American President Visits the Middle East, on the other.

The musical affinities between Adams and Glass — the off-kilter, driving rhythms, the large arcs constructed from small cells — require no elaboration. The revolutionary lesson of Einstein, Sellars writes, was that opera “was not only not dead, or about the dead, or for the dead; it was alive as the collaborative form of choice for our interdisciplinary, intercultural, interdependent generation.”

As for Giulio Cesare, it spurred the Nixon team’s political and philosophical ambitions.

“Handel lunched with three administrations of corrupt British politicians, royalty, rear admirals, court flacks and power players, and he wrote the soundtrack to the British empire at close range,” Sellars said. “In Handel’s generation, writers like Swift and Fielding would announce comical or satirical intentions, and then proceed to unfold larger, much more serious, ultimately visionary projects.”

Nixon in China was conceived in just that spirit. What at first glance may look like lampoon, often devolves into the intense, dreamlike free associations characteristic of Einstein on the Beach, as when Nixon disembarks, exchanges courtesies with then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) on the tarmac and explodes into an aria of sputtering euphoria (News has a kind of mystery).

Kitman singled out this passage for special ridicule when the opera was new, but to the baritone James Maddalena, the original Nixon, the writing felt perfectly natural. With more than 100 performances in more than a dozen cities under his belt, Maddalena now recreates the role at the Met, still a few years shy of Nixon’s age (59) at the time of the historic visit.

“I just learned the music and sang it,” Maddalena said between rehearsals. “Have you ever flown to Asia? It’s a long trip. To me the music just fits the mood of being tired and wired from 50 cups of coffee on Air Force One.”

In context, a strain of paranoia in the aria is more difficult to account for. Adams said he suspected a grim line about rats beginning to gnaw the sheets — what sheets? — of being an “Alice Goodman goodie.”

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