19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2012
This opera is the best and the most important of the XXth Century and the history of American opera, period. Everything comes together for what Mallarmé once called "the
Total work of Art"--the perfect fusing of poetry, narrative, music, dance, staging and cinematography. Adams himself of the podium, The Dean (or Prima Donna Assoluta) of stage directors,Peter Sellers; the best opera chorus in the world; and a cast of incomparable performers (James Maddalena created the role in 1987 and still performs it--and watch Katheleen Kim as Madame Mao!) and dancers, the best staging I have ever seen in an opera house; an a libretto made up of the most poetic lines ever to be uttered by singers . . . . And then, humane, incisive, tender treatment of some of the century's greatest political monsters, revealing their shared humanity beneath their public masks (Janis Kelly is simply heartbreaking as Pat Nixon). I already own Klingshoffer and Dr. Atomicus. Now, if i could only find Ahknaton (Glass, not Adams) on DVD!
23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2012
In February of 1972, President Nixon's plane landed in China. I went to a middle of the night dinner party to celebrate. The little black & white TV was on the table with the food. I was the youngest at the table. Of all the friends, at the party, except sleeping children... I think I am the only surviver. I'll just say that it's me, and Henry Kissinger who live on. It was a very big event in my life. About 15 years later John Adams and Peter Sellars had developed the opera. There have been many performances all over the world. I listened to a recording. Last year the Metropolitan Opera broadcast Nixon in China with John Adams conducting. I loved the PBS High Definition broadcast. This blu-ray disc is that performance. A DVD copy is included with the blu-ray. Since 1987, I have been singing "Smooo-oooth," and "News, news, news." Yes, everyone wonders.... I have never encountered another human who sings those hits, off stage. But, that is your loss dear friends.
I will describe this "show" for folks less excited than I am about the history, and the composer that I have loved for 25 years. The disc is excellent. I have come to love the Met just in the years since the HD broadcasts have been delivered to me by PBS. The disc image quality is perfect, slightly better than the broadcast. It helps to have the menu control so that I can show my favorite parts to friends. I will buy every blu-ray of a Met performance that is offered. I'm also in the middle of the Wagner Ring that just came out. (Fantastic).
What a way to deliver history. I intend to give my teen aged grandchildren the lesson. Oh, I spare them the... length by presenting a "best of" experience. I'll talk it up with my stories of the time. You may not realize it, but Nixon's trip to China was one of the most important events in history. I detested Nixon mind you and I think Henry Kissenger is a war criminal. But, Nixon changed the world. His wife was the gentle and warm woman who seems to have kept Nixon from going off the deep end... much like Nancy Reagan. "First Ladies" are so freaking important. I'm cheering for a certain former first lady to be our next president. Sorry... but it really is magnificent to have a huge work of art like Nixon in China be so much a part of modern life. The opera will help you understand what a great thing the China revolution was. "The people are the Heroes now." The People's Republic of China has been the biggest movement of the most people in the history of the world. The opera gives us some of that feeling. Our leaders, be they American, or Chinese, Russian or British... are always flawed. Every character in this story has problems... even the heroes, the people.
Henry Kissinger is comic and not heroic. Nixon is truly brilliant, yet full of the issues we all know something about. Mao is over-the-top with regard for his own brilliance... which seems to be fading fast. Mao's wife is witch-like but nevertheless conscious of the magnificent journey of the people into the future. Nixon's visit to the People's Republic of China was a real life grand opera before Peter Sellars and John Adams came a long.
The choreography is by Mark Morris. He's perfect for this. Wow. It is such a major component of the show. It is exactly what it should be. I think that I will view this many times. I love every moment. Thomas Hampson is the host... great interviews and insight. The singing is so satisfying. All of these people are great.
The stage art is beautiful and fun. I am nuts about this show. There are tragic reminders of the 1960's and 1970s. We think about Nixon's Vietnam and the protests. Yet we weep for his ability to see what an American president can do for humanity. Nixon cleared a path for China's hero people.
I would love to see Adams and Sellars work on an opera about 2012. There is so much right here in our faces this month. Well, I'm thinking of a working title of "The people are the heroes now." Maybe "Clinton in Palestine," or "Obama in Ohio," or "Romney in Utah," "Fox in the Newsroom," "Peace in the the desert... a dream," yeah, that's it.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2013
I am neither a music critic nor educated in the subject.
That said: here is music; a production; character drawing (except for the over the top and unfairly drawn Kissinger); of a modern historical event.
It kept me glued and involved.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Let me admit up front: I'm a *huge* fan of both John Adams in general and this opera in particular. Alice Goodman's libretto is a work of art in itself, to say nothing of the music that accompanies the words. That it has taken 25 years for this work to appear on DVD (or any video recording) is almost obscene, but here we are (finally!).
First, one of the negatives: James Maddalena's Nixon is audibly tired. Perhaps I'm used to his younger voice from the first CD recording, but throughout he sounds a bit underpowered. Nevertheless, he's an old pro, having created the role at the 1987 Houston premiere, so it's hard to be too critical. A real asset, as he discusses in one of the intermissions, is that his vast experience affords him the chance to continually refine and revise the role. It is a clear labor of love for Maddalena, something he communicates well.
Robert Brubaker's Chairman Mao is nearly heroic: capturing Mao's complex personality--bullying and menacing in one moment, waxing philosophical the next--is a tricky task indeed. Brubaker's versatile voice communicates this wide-ranging persona quite effectively. One of my favorite moments is Adams's beautiful vocal writing for Mao ("We cried 'Long live the ancestors' once..."). Brubaker really does it justice--much more satisfying (imo) than Marc Heller's heavy-handed bellowing on the recent Colorado Symphony disc set.
Janis Kelly (Pat Nixon) and Russell Braun (Chou En-Lai) are worthy co-stars, but I found them both a bit over the top at isolated moments. Kelly's strong voice overpowers some of Goodman's more delicate writing...strictly an opinion. Braun also tended to bring a great deal of brawn at times when a slightly more subtle approach ("The Chairman means the dead!") might have been preferable. His performance of Chou's speech before the end of Act I, however, is a real treat.
Surprisingly, I also found Ginger Costa Jackson's Second Secretary to Mao one of the real highlights of the minor roles. She is a gifted performer (such as her reactions to Nixon's speech at the end of Act I) and also, frankly, rather creepy ("Nothing will change without discipline!"). In a role that might be considered less prominent, she showed the real quality of the production: everyone is at the top of their game.
The best, though, is last. Kathleen Kim's Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) is *magnificent*. She might be the shortest principal cast member, but Kim completely owned the stage whenever she was on it. It must be remembered that Jiang Qing is one of the most powerful women in history, having clawed her way to the top of the Chinese Communist Party's echelons to ignite the firestorm of the Cultural Revolution--and Kathleen Kim's interpretation captures every single bit of that importance. This is a Madame Mao who clearly commands and intimidates with nothing more than an angry gesture and the occasional stomped foot.
Kim has a thunderous, almost ear-splitting voice ("That is your cue! That is your cue! THAT IS YOUR CUE!!"). Her performance of "I am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung" is viscerally exciting and was for me the highlight of the whole opera. Kim rages across the stage, grimacing, frightening underlings and even shoving Pat Nixon around while atrocities (real or imagined, it isn't clear) are carried out in the background. The body language of the entire cast during the aria gives immediate truth to her words: "When I appear, the people hang! When I appear, the people hang upon my words!"
During the climax of the aria, she whips out a copy of the infamous "Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung," furiously declaiming: "I speak according to the Book! The Book! The Book!" At the conclusion of Act II--as the stage degenerates into a chaotic depiction of the Cultural Revolution--Kim holds aloft the Little Red Book like the Statue of Liberty's torch while Russell Braun slowly and methodically walks toward her for a showdown. The curtain falls as they glare at one another. It's a thrilling and even darkly satisfying moment.
For fans of John Adams and "Nixon in China" alike, this DVD is a very welcome addition to the library--and hopefully we won't have to wait another 25 years for the next recording.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 15, 2013
I didn't pay much attention to this opera until I saw the broadcast on PBS. I was delighted to see and hear this monumental work performed so very well.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
John Adams's opera "Nixon in China" (1987) is recognized as a modern classic. Long available only in a CD recording, contemporary music fans finally got both sound and visuals with the broadcast and later DVD/Bluray release of the Metropolitan Opera's 2011 production. The composer himself conducts.
"Nixon in China" was the fruit of collaboration between Adams, the director Peter Sellars and the librettist Alice Goodman, who gradually became interested in how myth could arise from the contemporary political event of Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China to establish diplomatic relations after decades of mistrust. In addition to a large cast of dancers and extras, six main characters are featured: Richard Nixon (baritone, here a visibly ailing James Maddalena), Pat Nixon (soprano, Janis Kelly), Henry Kissinger (a buffo bass, Richard Paul Fink), Zhou Enlai (baritone, Russell Braun), Mao Zedong (heldentenor Robert Brubaker) and Jiang Qing a.k.a. Madame Mao (coloratura soprano, Kathleen Kim). Mention must be made of the three Chinese interpreters/secretaries (Ginger Costa-Jackson, Teresa S. Herold and Tamara Mumford), who don't get top billing but whose creepy chorus role is more memorable than some of the main characters.
The three-act opera presents various scenes from the five-day visit, such as Air Force One's landing in Peking and Nixon's handshake with Zhou Enlai after he descends the stairs, a state dinner where toasts are offered, Pat Nixon's propaganda tour of various Chinese sites, an elaborately choreographed performance of the socialist realist ballet "The Red Detachment of Women" put on for the visiting Americans. Goodman's libretto consists of two contrasting styles of dialogue: when the Americans and Chinese politicians are speaking to each other, the dialogue consists of empty platitudes or subtle ideological jibes, while in private, characters on each side are allowed to express what Goodman postulates as their innermost thoughts.
Visually, this is a grand spectacle. The deft changes of set, the excellent ballet dancing, the lavish costumes and the impression that absolutely no expense was spared, make this interesting throughout. The Met's camerawork moves around a lot, but always manages to focus on something we want to see. In Bluray, this is very high-definition indeed (shots of singers' throbbing tongues as they sing long notes with vibrato are common).
What disappointed me about "Nixon in China", however, is Adams's music. At this stage in his career, Adams could be labelled a minimalist, but the repetitive structures of his music are less meditative and process-oriented than those of his forebear Steve Reich. While the shaking, twittering, madcap lines Adams wrote at this time might be interesting in the first piece by the composer that you hear -- or for the first few minutes of this opera -- ultimately they wear out their welcome, and I can't see this music as anything but schlock. The six main characters get different kinds of writing, but it's still all schlock. While my own tastes run to modernism, I watched this opera with my significant other, who likes more "accessible" classical music, and even she thought that the music here was vulgar and bland.
(Incidentally, none of Adams's score draws on Chinese music. Even during the theatre-with-theatre performance of "The Red Detachment of Women", a real-life Chinese propaganda play, the music is entirely Adams's own.
The DVD/Bluray title is exactly the same as was presented in cinemas, which means that the Met presenter's backstage encounters with cast and crew are not included as DVD extras, but carried out in the intermissions between acts. There are brief, not especially enlightening interviews with Adams, a more flamboyant than usual Sellars, all of the main roles except Kathleen Kim, State Department official and later US ambassador to China Winston Lord and the set designer Adrianne Lobel.
on August 29, 2014
I will not re-analyze the opera in its formal content. I have already done that five days ago for the following recording: JOHN ADAMS - ELLIE CAULKINS OPERA HOUSE - DENVER, COLORADO - MARIN ALSOP - COLORADO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA - COLORADO OPERA CHORUS - 2008 - NIXON IN CHINA - 1987. The review is available on Amazon but also on my blog dated Monday, August 25, 2014, at http://drjacquescoulardeau.blogspot.fr/, under the title: "You must be a fool to believe you are making history." I will only concentrate on this particular production and what it modifies or adds.
The first element is that we have here the live capture of the opera on one particular performance, February 12, 2011, as produced by one particular team. The intermissions are used for various interviews and supplementary resources. I must say these short interview of the singers impersonating Richard Nixon, Patricia Nixon, Chou En Lai and Henry Kissinger are not that interesting. Too short and too personal within the performance, so too deeply involved at the time. The singer impersonating Richard Nixon is the one who actually created the role in the very first production of this opera. And he apparently has held this part over and over again.
The short interview of Peter Sellars and John Adams are absolutely useless and do not bring much. The interview of the ex-US-Ambassador to Beijing at the time of Nixon's visit only tells us this particular production has been enriched with the notes he took at the time and so we learn that some official toasts and conversations are nearly verbatim. The interview of the set-designer Adrianne Lobel pushes aside the idea that the setting was inspired by real pictures of the real event. She does say she remained at a certain distance of these resources.
The very repetitive music of the overture, seven notes and eight beats, turns the first part of the opening chorus into a prayer mill reciting some mottoes from Mao's Little Red Book up to the sentence "The people are the heroes now. Behemoth pulls the peasant's plow." At this moment the music changes, becomes more melodious and this sentences is repeated over and over again. It is a mantra in a way but not implied by the music this time but by the very repetition of the two sentences.
Richard Nixon is not particularly flattered by this production; When he disembarks from the plane he starts stuttering, stammering and repeating in the most ungraceful and displaced way, words and sentences as if he were a debutante in the political game, as if he were overwhelmed with the situation. This image of a man who is not really in touch with reality is going to be kept all along. When he meets Mao he tries to say a few things to a man who is far beyond any possible contact. Nixon then sounds like improvising some remarks that fall flat on their own faces most of the time, except once when Mao picks Nixon's expression, "History is our mother," and distorts it with his retort into "History is a dirty sow." Later on in the ballet Nixon is dragged into the action by his wife but even so he remains on the side of what his wife is doing, which is by the way integrated into the ballet by the stage director and ballet master. His last scene in the third act, and his various interventions then are reminiscences from World War II in the Pacific and they are also very pathetic: he is on the verge of crying, he is mollified by the recollections and the story itself is miserable: he transformed a war station into a hamburger joint. At this moment he looks completely corrugated (like the roof of the shanty where he is stationed), inundated with the storm of the rain outside then and of his own memory.
Pat Nixon is just what she is. An innocuous person who has no personal project, who is entirely representative of the standard little middle class American housewife who finds herself in the position of First Lady and does not seem to be able to cope in any creative and committed way. She makes most of the time off the point remarks like about the glass elephant, which is green ceramic or china actually, that she sees as the symbol of the Republican Party, which is sort of off the point in China and for the Chinese. She imagines it is a unique piece and when she is given the lie about it by the workers who presented the elephant she does not even know what to say. The second mention of the elephant later on when a "real" one, at least by its size, is presented to her is a typical Walt Disney reference to Jumbo, which is an echo of the cartoon character Dumbo. We know what Jumbo was going to become when he got into the jet generation. The worst part for her is when she intervenes in the ballet believing the dancer is really dead. Apparently the stage director was nice and saved her dumbness by integrating her to the ballet and making her the one who presents the glass of some fictional red beverage to the "dead girl" for her to be resuscitated. Her part in the third act is meaningless since she is here only to repeat many times to her husband that he has already told her the story. She is a typical Republican First Lady who has no project of her own and is only the president's companion trotting behind him. Only Democrat First Ladies actually had something to say and do, at least since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Chou en Lai is shown without any real change in his allure and style. He is the realist pragmatist in the "revolutionary" team, the one who comes behind and mops the rivers of blood. At the end of the second act, after Mrs. Mao has created havoc on the stage by transforming the ballet into a real revolutionary act, he is standing tall in front and over Mrs. Mao, unmoved by her violence, or shouldn't I say viral virulence, she, holding up in the air the Little Red Book, and he, looking down upon her sternly. He is the dam that managed to keep China together, and most Chinese alive. But in the last act Chou En Lai is really changed. He is shown from the start suffering from his pancreatic cancer and, since the stage is only furnished with six beds for Nixon, Pat, Chou, Kissinger (who will excuse himself to the toilet for nearly the whole act), Mao and Mrs. Mao, the six main characters (in this order from left to right), he is shown dying on the bed with a whole set of white lilies being brought and deposited around the foot of his bed, and him lying down, dead, covered up with a red Chinese flag till the last concluding solo when he will come back to life. This death is artificial, is a metaphor, and at the same time is dictated by the future of the event described here. In 1972 he was not yet dead, and this does not add anything to the opera since at this moment, if he dies (and Mao is also put to death in the same way) then Mrs. Mao is the only one who survives and there we are creating a tremendous hiatus with history. Does the artistic team want to tell us a story about what happened several years later? Why then is Nixon not shown out of the way too and the Vietnam war concluded with a full defeat? At this moment a strange ideological discourse prevails and seems to show that modern China has fallen in the hands of Mrs. Mao and her supporters. In other words it completely distorts history since Mrs. Mao will commit suicide after many years in prison due to her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, since the Maoists will be nicely pushed aside by Deng Xiaoping, and China will start growing at a record speed. This production has not yet digested that Nixon opened up the door, the gate actually, that was going to lead China to what it is today, the second economic power in the world and the leading force of the BRICS and the alliance around the BRICS, the first economic power in the world.
Mao is by far over-presented as a senile quasi-impotent-cum-invalid old man who is ranting and raving, repeating ad nauseam some old mottoes of his transformed into mantras, like "Founders come first, then profiteers," "Revolution is a boys' game," "The revolution must go on," and a few others. He is even presented as an old dirty sex obsessed lubricious freak who uses his secretaries (three mind you) as sex toys for his own masturbation. His recollection of Mrs. Mao when she was a young actress who got into his life in 1938 leads to a sex scene on the beds in the third act. Does this add anything to the character? It sure makes him look like a dirty boar echoing the dirty sow that history is according to one of his mantras. But is this sexual innuendo and real reference a motivation for Mao in this historical period and event? It only more or less blurs the real motivations and the fact that history is not made by human beings. This production loses this meaning: only fools can believe they are making history. The over-emphasis of the sexual obsession of Mao in the third act makes us lose the philosophical under-meaning or at times front meaning of what Mao may say. The end of the opera then becomes absolutely messy and meaningless, in spite of the last intervention of Chou En Lai who concludes the opera on a both poetical and realist note. In fact this last soliloquy by Chou is the real meaning of the opera: it is the alliance of the free birds who sing at dawn, still in the dark, underground, and the caged birds, the prisoners, the slaves that will bring the future, maybe. And yet this metaphor of the future brings up a "chill of grace." Grace comes from the fact that human beings are part of the history they do not control but that carries them through time or rather duration. The chill comes from the fact that realistically Chou knows history will be able to come only if many rivers of blood are abundantly provided to wash away the horror and the suffering of the victims of exploitation and liberation. The sexual meaning added to Mao's presence in this third act is wiping away the meaning that a good revolutionary leader needs to lean on some volunteers who have no pangs of no conscience and on some realists who will try to keep these volunteers within some acceptable limits, though it will not mean no blood shed along the way.
Mrs. Mao is a vain, superficial fundamentalist that sees revolution and change as havoc, necessarily and compulsorily. It is not change if it is not havoc and what's more a good old bloody havoc at that. There the opera is more than clear, and this production pushes that havoc at the end of the second act, after the ballet, at the end of the ballet, to some extreme form more or less justified at this moment. Unluckily the third act goes on with this vision by introducing the dancing couple of the male soldier and the resuscitated female victim, dressed in red mind you, behind the six beds at first and then in front. This is a link with the second act and Mrs. Mao is thus bringing sexual havoc in Mao himself by literally encouraging him to get one of his secretary to sexually satisfy him, in front of her, Mrs. Mao, and then by entering the same sexual game with him directly. This is not a case of literary creative freedom as some insisted in the interviews, but it is a case of diluting the deeper meaning into a superficial meaning that cuts off all depth in Chou En Lai's concluding soliloquy. In front of such havoc caused by the anarchistic fundamentalists with no possible restrain, there is only one possible vision: history itself and the cosmos with it are out of joint. It is not something rotten in the kingdom of Denmark but it is something rotten in the cosmic order that controls us entirely.
It is true that Nixon then in his final hamburger enterprise in the US armed forces in WWII appears like and as a victory. The Customer is really the king of the show, capitalism is really the victor of the comedy, ego-centered selfishness is really the master of our human tragedy that is thus turned into a melodramatic weeping and crying dereliction.
A great production but slightly - only slightly, you say? - warped out of shape. The hope that event brought to us in 1972 and the new energy it provided us with to force the defeat in Vietnam and to support Angela Davis in her trial and the Black Panthers in general is wiped out with a rag engorged with blood and sperm. I regret that lack of historical seriousness, if not depth. Is modern Homo Sapiens regressing to the state of not-yet-development of Neanderthals? I am afraid so. The customer of the opera in the west is the king of the performance: the creator does not create but satisfies the needs and desires of the critics and the audience (not the people since only a very narrow minority of the people go to the opera, even within the DVD revolution that widens the audience but does not make it a majority of the people).
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
It was fun to see this opera come to life after being familiar with it on CD. Certainly it makes the experience more emotional on both ends; the humor and wit are much clearer, as are the darker and sadder elements of change and loss.
Peter Sellars, who directed the stage production also guided the filming during a live performance. Sellars relies a great deal on close-ups, only going to wide shots occasionally. I found this surprising, and occasionally annoying, since his own careful theatrical visual compositions get cheated in the process. Also, extreme close-ups are not the most forgiving way of seeing stage wigs and make-up. On the other hand, it was nice to really be able to see the emotions on the singers' faces, and to realize what good actors most of them are. Even though they're playing in a large theater, most are subtle enough that these tight shots don't reveal tremendous over-acting, and give the opera a wonderfully intimate feel. Since a lot of the emotional drama of this opera is really internal, especially for both Richard and Pat Nixon, this close-up approach emphasizes the human as opposed to the spectacular, to strong effect.
On second viewing, the constant close ups seemed even more problematic. It struck me that much of what's going on in the opera is about the counterpoint in simultaneous 'conversations' and interactions. You might have Pat and Richard Nixon on one side of the stage, and Chairman Mao and his wife on the other. Or multiple groups at once in the 'big' scenes, all singing right over each other, 3 and 4 stories occurring simultaneously. But by relying so much on close ups and tight 2 shots, we lose some of the juxtapositions built into the music and staging. It works well in the truly intimate one-on-one scenes, but when there are many people on stage the close ups start to feel like they're interrupting the appreciation of the big picture.
The interviews conducted between acts are also less than thrilling. They tend to be very rushed, not giving time for any thoughtful or complex answers, and the interviewer has an irritating habit of chiming in and cutting off even those brief answers. I found myself skipping the interviews altogether after about the half-way point.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2012
John Adams is a wonderful composer with his irregular rhythmic patterns. This opera is superb and the performers are the best. I am old enough to remember the Nixon administration and he and his wife's visit to China. Pat was an elegant woman, and rather subdued. The singer who played her is a superb singer and actress, and the singer who played the President is also an excellent singer and actor. Mao was well portrayed as the ill tempered Chairman of Communist China.
on August 16, 2014
It is a pleasure to listen to this great opera in installments, savoring each act. This is one 20th century operatic work that will remain in the permanent repertory. It is musically fascinating, the story-telling unique. The opening scene, with its rising scales, makes my hair stand on end. The final scene is enthralling. The Met production is difinitive -- it doesn't get much better than this.