Alice Goodman (libretto), Peter Sellars (director), John Adams (composer) Nixon in China / The Metropolitan Opera, New York / the production I saw was a live in HD screening at the Rave Theater, Westchester, California
Although most of the critics who I read (Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times, and Anne Midgette of The Washington Post) agreed that the Met's new production of Nixon in China was excellent and long overdue, there was a sense among the three that the plot of the work was static and that one character, in particular, Henry Kissinger (sung by Richard Paul Fink), was a figure of parody whereas the others were treated more seriously. In a piece by Max Frankel, published in The New York Times a couple of days before the live HD airing, the former editor of the Times—who was with Nixon in China and won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the trip—squarely asked the question which the other reviewers only intimated:
...Why bother, as in Nixon, to lure us to a fictional enterprise with
contemporary characters and scenes from an active memory bank?
Why use actualities, or the manufactured actualities of our television
screens and newspapers, to fuel the drama?
The answer, he feels, is "obvious but also treacherous," that the use of actual characters helps to "overcome the musty odor that inhabits many opera houses," drawing new audiences into the theater. But, Frankel continues, it brings other dangers with it:
The danger is that despite the verisimilitudes of text, setting and
costume, a viewer's grasp of events may not match the fabric
being woven onstage. What the creators intend to be profundity
may strike the knowing as parody.
Most of the reviewers agreed that the composer, writer, and director did give their figures a range of emotions, both serious and comic, and between acts, Winston Lord (of National Security) assured us backstage that much of the talk between Nixon and Chairman Mao in the First Act was close to what actually was said in their meeting; but all also felt that the opera did move to a kind of parody in the Second Act performance of The Red Detachment of Women, in which Fink, the singer-actor who played Kissinger, also plays a lecherous, Simon Legree-like landowner who has stolen away a young maiden. Fink sings:
She was so hot
I was hard-put
To be polite.
When the first cut
—Come on you slut!—
Scored her brown skin
I started in,
Man upon hen!
Some characterized this scene as surreal and the last act as psychological, as if they were somehow different in tone from the more historicized events in the First Act.
If nothing else, there was a sense that Nixon in China, without a narrative arc, was a bit of a rocky ride. Certainly, at times, while always enjoying the shimmering glory of the music, I too felt that way while watching it. Yet now that I've pondered it for while, I believe I was mistaken, that, in fact, the opera is highly structured and fairly coherent in its tone and presentation of characters.
Prompt delivery directly to authorities of all items
confiscated from landlords.
Do not damage crops.
Do not take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses.
Pay for everything you damage.
As they chant, "The people are the heroes now," even if these "heroes" are highly manipulated and controlled.
News has a kind of mystery;
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the whole world was listening
James Maddalena, who has now sung this role in hundreds of performances, is an amazing actor, who brings off those jowl-shaking absurdities quite brilliantly.
This is prophetic! I foresee
A time will come when luxury
Dissolves into the atmosphere
Like a perfume, and everywhere
The simple virtues root and branch
And leaf and flower. And on that bench
There we’ll relax and taste the fruit
Of all our actions. Why regret
Life which is so much like a dream?
Yet the homespun images she spins out of her sense of momentary joy—lit-up farm porches, families sitting around the dinner table, church steeples, etc.—are right out of Norman Rockwell paintings and is just as absurd of a vision as are her husband's darker mumblings.
Los Angeles, February 19, 2011
Coincidentally, in my 1990 "opera for spoken voices," The Walls Come True (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995), I included Dr. Kissinger in my "Twelve Tyrants Between Acts: Mundane Moments and Insane Histories," based on the paranoia and ridiculous accusations he expressed in his Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little Brown, 1982) when, in 1973, he was in Hanoi attempting to negotiate the Paris Accords.