Nixons in China

What looked like a bit of a nuisance turned out instead to be an interesting opportunity. By chance, the Friday evening performance of the COC’s Nixon in China (our season tickets are for Friday nights) fell the evening before the Met’s HD broadcast of its production of the same piece affording me the opportunity to see two contrasting productions in less than 24 hours.

I went into this less than totally convinced about John Adams’ music but came out converted to the view that Nixon in China, at least, is a very fine opera indeed. It’s not flawless though most of my reservations probably relate to my need to find a deeper meaning in a piece like this. If I’d just got on with enjoying it even those reservations would likely disappear. So, we have a work with some wonderful music, albeit more for the orchestra than the singers, intriguing opportunities for visual interest, human drama and some wry humour. The libretto also repays repeat listening. It’s very skilled indeed. What’s not to like?

So how did Toronto and New York compare? Let me say first of all that my comparison is conditioned by having seen the COC production from the Orchestra Ring at the Four Seasons Centre and the Met production via HD broadcast. In my opinion the Met broadcast didn’t do full justice to what was happening on stage. Peter Sellars fell into the too many close ups trap that seems endemic to directors of these broadcasts. This was particularly egregious during the ballet in Act 2. Focussing in gruesome close up on three singers standing stock still while there are dancers on stage doing their thing is just perverse. Also, the voices were balanced much further forward at the Met which rather underplayed the orchestra’s contribution. The balance at the COC (unusually for opera this work is always miked and amplified) was, where i was sitting, just about ideal. This meant that the singers were more obviously showcased at the Met and that may be colouring some of my judgements.

Act 1 – the Nixons arrive, meeting with Mao, state banquet. The Met’s staging is very literal and based on contemporary photographs; the COC’s more allegorical with use of multiple television sets, an American family watching TV and a silent peasant wandering the sets. Certainly the COC version gives more sense of the “made for TV” nature of the visit. The COC set is also sparser (why does the Met love “stuff” so much?) which is easier on the eye, allows for more dynamic movement of characters and faster scene changes. Advantage COC here. The singing in both productions was good with the obvious exception of James Maddelena in New York. He clearly had a bad cold and his voice got very shaky towards the end of the first act. Not his fault of course and he soldiered on manfully. Russell Braun’s Chou was the stand out in either house; just marvellous. The two Mao’s were an interesting contrast Robert Brubaker in New York more the heldentenor and dominating, Adrian Thompson in Toronto more enigmatic. Of course some of that could be the balance issue.

Act 2 – Pat’s tour and Mme Mao’s ballet. Act 2 Scene 1 was played fairly straight in both houses. More stuff at the Met of course and the COC added an interesting touch in having Pat carried from location to location but they were pretty similar. Excellent performances from both Pats.

The ballet scene was done very differently. Toronto gave us a more obviously sexually sadistic version performed by dancers who looked like their focus was modern dance. The involvement of the on stage audience was limited to Pat’s reactions, Dick’s attempts to calm her down and the later involvement of Mme Mao cuing the execution (or not) scene. New York gave us really excellent classically trained dancers (the women dancing en point) and much more confusion between audience and dancers with a “reeducation session” going on on one side of the stage and the audience finally breaking up the furniture while waving The Thoughts. There was also a very explicit confrontation between Mme. Mao and Chou at the end of the scene which had me thinking that we are seeing the tensions between the Cultural Revolution and the forces of stability played out here. Advantage New York here I think. Both Mme Mao’s did well with the fiendish “I am the Wife of Mao Tse Tung” aria. Marisol Montalvo in Toronto was fine but Kathleen Kim in New York was truly amazing. Again, my judgement may be being affected by sound balance issues.

(As an aside, it occurred to me that if one wanted to stage a Dadaist event, leaping out of the audience and kidnapping Pat Nixon in this scene would have a certain logic)

Act 3 – the last evening in Peking. This is an odd scene and the one where I grope most for meaning. Why do both couples revert to memories of the war and the Long March? Is it that nothing since is really real for them? I don’t know. Also what’s with Adams/Sellars and banal lyrics about food? Doctor Atomic gave us a discourse on calories and chocolate cake. Here we get tips for grilling burgers. Both houses played this scene pretty straight. There was a bit more make out action in New York (perhaps surprisingly) but differences were slight.

Orchestral playing in both houses was first rate (at least what I could tell of the New York playing given the backward balancing of the orchestra). I didn’t get exact times on the acts but I think Adams in New York took things a bit slower than Heras-Casado in Toronto. Toronto had one, shorter, interval and swifter scene changes (less stuff). New York had two intermissions and the mandatory Met “let’s rebuild the opera house” between acts so we got out of the Four Seasons centre in a little under three hours versus around four for the Met version.

Bottom line, I thoroughly enjoyed both versions and I strongly suspect I’d have like the New York one even more if I had been in the house.

Next week I’ll be seeing the COC’s Die Zauberflöte on both Thursday and Friday evenings; the first with the Ensemble Studio cast and the second with the main cast. Watch this space.

1 thought on “Nixons in China

  1. Pingback: How much of what we did was good? | operaramblings

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