Saturday, February 26, 2011

Nixon at the Met

Clearly a bit tardy on this, but wanted to say something for Internet posterity about Nixon in China, because it really is a marvelous thing. My familiarity with "new" operas is far from encyclopedic, but it's the first time I've seen an opera successfully use the language of the modern American theater--and the effectiveness of that marriage was something of a revelation.
Here is all the casual avant-gardism, fluid treatment of time, space, and relationship to the audience, artful synthesis of found and created text, and voracious historical appetite that defines so much new theatre in all but most retrograde Broadway enclaves. Language dominates this approach--it drives the imagery and atmosphere of the work and asks the audience to wrestle with not just a script but a text. Yet the song-based musical theatre, which prizes concision and surgical deployment of ideas, is not ideally suited to this medium. An operatic score, on the other hand, is a perfect complement to a dense, meandering text and can develop the complex, long form structures that serve such a fractured narrative.
Judging from some of the commentary, its interesting how frequently the piece's deliberate artifice is misunderstood--a symptom, I think, of a hesitance to accept opera's ability to perform at this level of sophistication. Opera's place in the modern musical theatre is strange in this respect: the most notoriously "artificial" of art forms is assumed captive to the dullest sort of naturalism (but, you know, with singing).
But Nixon takes seriously the possibilities of opera to go beyond simple narrative and allow its characters to describe a rich inner landscape and Goodman, Adams and Sellars use these possibilities to interrogate a very particular emotional space. The work tracks its characters as they turn inward in the face of a fundamentally artificial and impossible cultural confrontation. The fluidity of the operatic form allows for the constant disintegration and dissolution of the political and performative spaces they occupy. See the remarkable first Act scene between Mao and Nixon, in which Nixon's pragmatic American sympathies are dwarfed by Mao's all-consuming politics, scored by Adams with increasing grandeur and dread. Or the inspired gesture that closes Act II, in which the boundaries of the noxious propaganda ballet directed by Mme. Mao break down and the Nixons enter the performance, rendered bewildered and helpless by the alien politics and history they have stepped into. But the surprising third Act upends this dynamic--taking us into a fully interior space where the characters drift away from the political towards their personal histories.
The effect of the evening works on several levels--a provocative window into public and personal history, a meditation on our attempts to understand the world through politics, and a deeply affecting emotional observation of the central characters' humanity (not all good, obviously). In short, it demonstrates unequivocally how intellectually and dramatically rich a modern opera can be, and for that deserves what will hopefully become a permanent place in the Met's repertoire.
To digress for a second: so why did Dr. Atomic, a work with similar aspirations, suck so hard? First and foremost, there is the vast gulf between Goodman's carefully wrought Nixon libretto and Sellar's lazy hodge-podge of found sources for Dr. Atomic. Again, the text is dominant in a work like this, and the moment it sounds phoned in, or strikes a false note, as was the case with all that tangentially relevant Renaissance poetry Oppenheimer and Kitty kept singing to each other, the whole thing falls apart. Dr. Atomic also failed to have the courage to sustain the kind of non-naturalistic architecture of a work like this. Instead, Dr. Atomic kept returning to fairly standard "scenes" with arias that tried to advance the timeline of the story, wedged into a bunch of unconnected choruses and half-monologue type things. But this kind of hedging results in the worst of both worlds: a drama with little urgency, and a lot of elements that are confusing outside of an integrated whole. Finally, there is a certain postmodern-y sensibility that is key to this kind of work: a willingness to allow the audience to "discover" individual voices and histories as they emerge, and make their own connections. That's not synonymous with political even-handedness, as some have charged Nixon, but with the integrity of what is being presented. But Dr. Atomic violated that sensibility repeatedly with its morass of didactic messages (the nadir being that scolding Native American nanny, of course). A heavy moral hand is good for say, Tosca, but its death to a work that is trying to deal honestly with historical themes.
Musically, the Met performance left a bit to be desired but was generally very fine. Adams led a grand, persuasive reading of his score, though one left feeling some of its full power was not exploited. I'm still not clear on what the amplification situation was, but the balance between singers and orchestra was way off for much of the first Act. Maddalena started out with the vocal issues everyone has talked about, but they were a small price to pay for the kind of authority and depth he brings to this part. Kathleen Kim nailed the difficult Mme. Mao part but with some cautiousness which, from the old recording sounds, like it is part for the course in this role. I don't know if it is feasible, but I'm adding a Mme. Mao who can sing the part like the best Brunnhildes as an addition to my fantasy list. The rest of the cast was uniformly strong...

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