It’s time to liberate “Nixon in China” from its keepers: composer-conductor John Adams, director Peter Sellars and baritone James Maddalena, who originated the title role in the 1987 world-premiere production at Houston Grand Opera. The Met’s production comes from the English National Opera and its designs are based on that original HGO staging. Having finally arrived at the Met, “Nixon in China” has traveled the world. It is a masterpiece, a staple of the opera repertory, and now it simply deserves a new look.
But let’s start with the sound. Adams commits the mortal sin of opera and amplifies his singers. He has said in interviews that he uses mikes so the singers can be heard. Maybe Adams should check out “Simon Boccanegra,” which is playing in repertory at the Met with his “Nixon.” The singers there can be heard over an even greater orchestra. Instead of amplification, Adams might consider using a baritone other than the vocally distressed Maddalena, who probably would be inaudible if singing over a Handel-size orchestra.
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The amplification gives Adams’ opera a shrill overlay of sound, and in ensembles it is often difficult to locate who is singing on stage because the sound is so generalized. Only Kathleen Kim’s Madame Mao Tse-tung really stands out in this vocal/orchestral soup, but then she is a world-class opera singer who dazzled last season in “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Olympia’s coloratura is nothing compared to the flights of fiendish singing that Adams gives his Madame Mao Tse-tung. Obviously, Adams and Sellars are enamored of singing actors. How about hiring more talents like Kim, who can sing and act?
As for the production itself, Sellars is the director who put “The Marriage of Figaro” in the Trump Tower and “Don Giovanni” in an urban slum. So why this literal approach to Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972 to meet Chairman Mao? That might have been fine 23 years ago at the opera’s premiere, but the red curtains and the beige flats now look simply drab — and it’s a cheat to say that China itself is drab-looking. Even the production’s signature image, that descending Air Force One, emerges as flimsy, tacky. Only the final scene, which is essentially a bare stage with a row of beds, is visually arresting, and that owes everything to James F. Ingalls’ minimal lighting.
Adams and librettist Alice Goodman begin with their opera with a TV news coverage approach to Nixon’s historic visit to China. That’s the myth, but the opera ends with those six beds on stage to give us the human drama behind the history. Who knew that the Nixons, or the Maos, ever had a life in the bedroom?