I went to the Met premiere of *Nixon in China* last night. I’d been looking forward to it for two years, since I first heard they were going to do a production of it. I don’t think my high expectations were that much of a factor, but the performance was very disappointing. Still, I’m thrilled that the Met is doing it, and I’m sure other people will enjoy it more than I did.
The two problems (and they were huge problems) were the conductor and the singer playing Nixon. The Met hired John Adams, who composed the opera, to conduct the run, and he did not do a good job. That orchestra was loose as a wet sweater. Very sloppy, and some bit of wonkiness every five minutes. This is a score that needs to be played incisively, with razor-sharp precision, and he just didn’t deliver. The fault isn’t with the Met Orchestra, which really can play anything beautifully. They did a glorious job with Adams’ *Doctor Atomic” a few years ago, with the New York Phil’s Alan Gilbert conducting - - John Adams just wasn’t good enough.
And James Maddalena, bless his heart. He was Nixon in the original production in 1987, and has been singing this role and other roles around the world since then. He played Sharpless in *Madama Butterfly* at Madison Opera right before I left town, and he and I got chummy. He’s a lovely guy and an expert performer, and it really warmed my heart to see him make his Met debut in his signature role. The sad truth is he just doesn’t sing very well anymore. His voice was hollow and flabby. Every once in a while he let loose with a firm and glorious line, but it was rare.
The director Peter Sellars was also making his long-overdue Met debut. This guy has been one of a handful of innovative American opera directors for the last 30 years, and it’s just shameful that it took the Met so long to bring him in. He directed the original production, and it was more or less a reproduction of it. It was wonderful. He certainly isn’t afraid to be out there. I saw the opera with my partner Richard, my best friend Karen, and our dear friend Liz. A 3.5-hour opera on a work night is a dicey proposition, and we all fought the urge to nap, with varying degrees of success. But there was no napping in the second scene of the second act, the scene when the Nixons go to the ballet. The whole thing goes coo coo: Kissinger plays the villain in the ballet, whipping a girl to death - - Pat rushes onstage trying to save her - - it starts to rain - - they’re transported to what looks like Oahu - - the curtain closes and Madame Mao strides in front of it, pacing around menacingly, then the curtain opens back up to reveal the same thing we were looking at before - - and the act ends with Madame Mao waving around her handgun, then her little red book, singing her triumphant aria “I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung.”, which naturally causes the chorus to tear apart the furniture and toss bags of rice into the air. Karen said, at the intermission, “The WTF Factor was very high in that last scene. What the hell was going on? But I have to say, the WTF Factor sure is stimulating, there was no chance I was going to fall asleep.”
A few words about the other singers: Janis Kelly was lovely as Pat Nixon, sang beautifully and really nailed the perkiness and the hidden depths of Pat. Kathleen Kim was suitably shrill as Madame Mao, though not as commanding as I’d like her to be. Kim is so young, it looked more like petulance. Richard Paul Fink did a great job as Kissinger, and seemed to be having a great time, which is always winning. Robert Brubaker was fierce as Mao. There’s not a lot of singing in this role, but what’s there is KILLER - - very high, very exposed, treacherous. He was fantastic. The highest honors go to baritone Russell Braun as Premier Chou En-lai, gorgeous singing from start to finish, and he held the stage with quiet grace during his endless and droopy toast aria at the end of the first act. I also need to mention the peerless Met chorus. They have a lot to do in this opera, and they were marvelous.
For years I’ve been hoping that the Met would do this opera. Now I hope that they’ll do it a few years down the road, with a new conductor and a new Nixon.