Two years ago I got a chance to see a live COC performance of John Adams’ Nixon in China followed, on the next day, by a live cinema broadcast from the Met of the same piece. I wrote them up at the time on Dreamwidth. I’ve now got my hands on the recently released Blu-ray/DVD release of the Met broadcast. Interestingly it’s just that; a Blu-ray and DVD copy of the recording in the same box for a pretty typical opera video price. I think it’s a neat solution to the two SKU dilemma of releasing on Blu-ray and DVD separately. Packaging aside, how does it look after a lapse of two years?
First, it does appear to be pretty much a straightforward release of what was seen in the theatre with the usual intermission interviews and so forth included in the body of the film. These intermission segments, hosted by Tom Hampson, are better than average since they feature useful interviews with both John Adams and Peter Sellars. There may have been some minor tweaks to the editing but it’s pretty much as I remember it. So, the basic who does what stuff contained in the earlier review will not be repeated here.
What then did I learn watching it again? First and foremost what a terrific libretto it is and how sensitively Adams sets it. Alice Goodman creates quite distinct verbal styles for each of the main characters and for the chorus, who really do stand for an idea of “China”. Mao is enigmatic, Chou reflective and contained, Nixon more demotic and so on. Some of the choral writing is really good. The opening chorus is one of the best things in modern opera. It’s really a rather impressive work.
I also found myself watching Act 2 with renewed interest. Scene 1 is really interestingly done. The whirlwind nature of Pat’s tour of worthy sights is conveyed by bringing them to her rather than her to them and then all the business disappears into a very unbusy and extended riff on how huge and unchanging; in time and space, China really is. Scene 2 is the hardest to interpret of the whole piece. The way the “wall” between the theatre within the theatre of the Red Troupe ballet and the theatre that we are watching breaks down is very structured. Kissinger is ambiguous here from the start, then Pat gets drawn in and takes Dick with her. Next Madame Mao and the secretaries are pulled in and in the final chaos the walls between the two theatres have dissolved. Except Chou stays aloof bar a silent confrontation with Madame Mao at the end and Mao himself is absent. It’s really curious; Chou is actively disengaged and Dick is passively engaged. And Mao is absent. What does this tell us? Maybe that the processes of revolution and change proceed independently of the deliberate actions of statesmen? Is this also what Mao was telling us in Act 1 and his absence reveals that he doesn’t need to make the point again? And what are we to make of the roles of the female characters as active breakers of the fourth wall?
Act 3 also came across rather differently. Both the Nixons and the Maos are revealed as very earthbound and Kissinger not even that. Chou really takes things over intellectually. It is he alone, obviously ill, dying, who seems to rise above the quotidian. All in all, there’s a lot to absorb. This may be one of those works that has as many potential interpretations as, say, Don Giovanni.
My observations on the performances haven’t changed much. Russell Braun is awesome, Kathleen Kim is scary and Robert Brubaker is an amazing physical actor. James Maddelena has a terrible cold and is cracking on his high notes towards the end of Act 1. He improves markedly in the later acts and I think he was a real trouper to go on. I’m actually somewhat surprised that the performance was released to video in the circumstances but glad that it has been since it’s the only video version we have.
The other aspect of the performance that struck me even more forcibly than first time round are the dance elements. Mark Morris’ choreography is very interesting and his two principal soloists; Kanji Segawa and, especially, Haruno Yamazaki are brilliant. The other dancers are no slouches either. There’s some very committed playing too from the Met orchestra with Adams himself conducting.
The disk package is very good. I found Peter Sellars’ video directing less distracting than in the theatre (which is why I think there may have been some recutting). The sound too is better than in the theatre with a better voice/orchestra balance. The surround sound track is spatious and well articulated and the picture is Blu-ray quality. There’s a useful interview with Adams and Sellars in the booklet and there are English, French, German, Spanish and Portugese subtitles.
So an innovative Blu-ray/DVD package of an important modern American opera. I think it’s well worth a look for anyone interested in Adams or modern opera in general.