New York

Nixon In China

When the title character of Nixon in China stepped out of the doorway of the mock Air Force One presidential jet and gave his familiar, trademark wave to the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House crowd, the opera’s conceit was overtly confirmed. The audience roared and applauded, completing the conceptual circuit between the public’s real-life love/hate relationship with the former president and its unabashed delight in seeing that connection portrayed in art. As an operatic idea, Nixon in China was one of those rare spectacles—a serious portrayal of a contemporary political subject and a freewheeling imaginative version of a historical event.

That the opera owed many of its best dramatic moments to the staging precedents of Robert Wilson (especially Einstein on the Beach) only dimmed the fun a bit; after all, Wilson himself is an accomplished synthesizer and recycler of ideas from a variety of sources, ranging from the work of other avant-garde directors such as Giorgio Strehler to the special effects of movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. What matters is how well the ideas are dramatically activated. All too often in contemporary art, of whatever medium, quotations and direct lifts have no life of their own and remain inert in their new context. Here, director Peter Sellars’ wholesale appropriation of one of Wilson’s principal visual leitmotifs, the use and stage placement of beds, served to remind us more than anything else of the striking effect they made in Einstein. And Sellars’ least successful scenes—the interminably static conversation between Mao and Nixon, and the finale, a polyphonic chorus from all the principal characters in their respective bedrooms—exposed his utter inability to ape the mesmerizing quality of stillness that Wilson at his best succeeds in achieving. Sellars was not helped in these sections by librettist Alice Goodman, whose generally poetic text was at its most didactically literal, nor by composer John Adams, whose score seemed trapped into extended vocal recitatives by the lackluster scenario.

As a director, Sellars was more successful when he kept things moving, as in the riotous banquet hall scene, a formally staged tableau based on actual news photographs that he animated in an energetic way by exploiting the stylized action of international protocol. Combining historical fact and dramatic license, he created an exciting sense of dramatized history through telling details: Nixon’s weird stiffness, Premier Chou En-tai’s Oriental politesse, the increasing rowdiness of the affair after repeated toasts with a potent Chinese liqueur.

The truly exhilarating moments—and there were many—were scenes in which the apparently mismatched qualities of its creators (Adams’ minimalism, Sellars’ slapdash post-Modernism, Goodman’s meditative/documentary introspection, and choreographer Mark Morris’ flamboyant dances) converged to make a patchwork yet somehow unified Gesamtkunstwerk. These moments varied from the extremely simple—Pat Nixon’s solitary, moving aria—to the amazingly complex, as when Dick and Pat jumped from the audience into a performance of the Red Detachment of Women ballet to rescue an oppressed peasant girl. In that scene, the dramatic, musical, choreographic, and textual strands were ingeniously interwoven, each standing out separately but still working together toward a surprising climax: the riveting solo by Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao). In other scenes, these disparate elements pulled unevenly, unbalancing the dramatic tone and producing awkward effects. A problem throughout was Adams’ score, which too frequently receded into the background as an aural wallpaper of minimalist clichés, and which, in its several rousing moments, was too reminiscent of Philip Glass’ operatic orchestrations, though without that composer’s powerful rhythmic drive. One component of the production that stood out as something completely original was the decor (sets by Adrianne Lobel, costumes by Dunya Ramicova, lighting by James F. Ingalls). The distinctive look of the opera’s visual design told us something about China through an approach that was convincingly “real” as well as unusually beautiful.

John Howell