A Tricky Night at the Met: How Two Decades Blunted “Nixon in China”

“The American people may not like my face, but they’re going to listen to what I have to say,” Richard Nixon said during the 1968 presidential campaign. Nixon’s embarrassments up to that point, after all, had been primarily visual ones: the disastrously five-o’clock-shadowed 1960 debate, the shine of sweat at his “final” press conference in 1962.

If John Adams’ opera Nixon in China succeeded at its premiere in 1987 in presenting a “new” Nixon, it was because the work understood that the truly fresh way to represent him, and in some sense to rescue him, was precisely to make him the subject and star of an opera, to transform him into a voice.

And over the past 24 years, Nixon has continued to be rescued. If an operatic depiction of him, even a nuanced one, still seemed “cartoonish” in 1987 (Donal Henahan in The Times), it’s now, in a year that features the premiere of an opera about Anna Nicole Smith, innocuous, even quaint. Nixon hasn’t been entirely defused in our cultural imagination, but he’s been substantially defanged; even those new, racist Oval Office tapes elicited more eye rolls and chuckles than rage.

In 1987, rendering Nixon as less malevolent than thoughtful, confused and lonely was provocative. But today the fact of Nixon as human is taken largely for granted, so the success of the piece in 2011 depends more on the things that always matter in opera: the production, the words, the music.

It’s in those areas that the Metropolitan Opera’s first production of Nixon in China, which opened last week, disappoints. For though it arrives hailed as a classic, needing only the Met’s blessing to officially enter The Repertory, this Nixon is dull and ponderous–far less human, not to mention entertaining, than L’incoronazione di Poppea, Giulio Cesare, Don Carlo, Boris Godunov and the other politically charged operas whose mantle it so self-consciously claims.

The piece’s 1987 collaborators were young and ambitious, and the piece is wearingly precocious. Alice Goodman’s enigmatic libretto can be brilliant, and even at its weirdest moments, the Mao-Nixon confrontation closely tracks what we know of their actual meeting. But her willfully abstruse style gets tiresome. I’m sure there’s an explanation for why Nixon says, about his plane trip, “The rats begin to chew the sheets,” but it just doesn’t work, doesn’t play, in the way that similar lines do in, say, Pelléas et Mélisande. As Mao says at one point, “It was a riddle, not a test.” The opera is puzzling, and proud of its puzzles, but not really challenging or engaging.

Mr. Adams’ score, which he conducted, sounded faint and tedious last week, its “eclecticism” (it quotes ’50s swing) banal. It can swiftly establish a mood but has little of the sustaining power and none of the strange ascetic sensuality of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, which came to the Met in 2008 and was as dazzling as Nixon is dreary.

The singers were uneven. Russell Braun was an imposing, eloquent Chou En-lai, Robert Brubaker an eerie Mao and Janis Kelly a sympathetic first lady Pat. Kathleen Kim hit Madame Mao’s thankless high notes. As Nixon, the part he played at the world premiere, the great artist James Maddalena made his Met debut, too belatedly to be heard here at his best. The orchestra and the singers both used some degree of amplification, which distorted balances without clarifying the words or orchestral textures.

Mr. Maddalena is not the only holdover from the opera’s world premiere: The production (by Peter Sellars), choreography (by Mark Morris), sets, lighting and costumes are largely identical to those from 1987. Everything’s been revamped and expanded, but felt oddly stale. In the stage directions for Act I’s banquet scene, we’re told, “The atmosphere is convivial; in that huge hall the president feels strangely joyful and lightheaded, as if this were the evening of arrival in heaven.” There was none of this onstage last week: no joy, no lightheadedness, no mood at all.

There are scenes in which everything works, particularly the opening of Act II, when Pat reflects on her life while taking a tour of Beijing. For 15 minutes, the music is haunting, and the personal and political, the satiric and sincere, finally blend. But the long ballet that follows, a Hamlet-like exercise melding “fiction” and “real life” during a performance of the propagandistic Red Detachment of Women, is unwatchable, its complex narrative impossible to follow.

The opera’s slowness, its length, the boredom it inspires, may have an aesthetic and political point. Nixon reflects at the beginning of the opera on “every word, transforming us/ As we, transfixed … made history,” and Mao at the end celebrates the pleasures of mythology, “retrenched in the inanimate.”

In its lethargy, the opera, which is supposedly about how history humanizes, actually becomes about how history objectifies, reifies. It’s about the transformation of people into things, but a postmodern acceptance of that process rather than a traditional liberal resistance of it. Nixon sets itself up as a culmination of the operatic tradition, but, marking depth like a singer marking a part at a rehearsal, it only rarely approaches its touchstones.

editorial@observer.com A Tricky Night at the Met: How Two Decades Blunted “Nixon in China”