I found it a bit shocking that John Adam’s Nixon in China wasn’t released on DVD until after the MetHD broadcast in 2011. I was even more shocked when I found out that the original 1987 Houston production had been recorded and broadcast on PBS. Just recently, thanks to a kind reader of this blog, I’ve been able to watch that original broadcast. It’s TV from 1988 recorded on VHS and then digitized so the picture quality isn’t state of the art but the sound is surprisingly good.
It’s basically the production that was reprised at the Met but there are subtle differences. My sense is that in 1987 director Peter Sellars was going for a look for the Chinese characters that was straight off a propaganda poster where 20 years later he looked for something more naturalistic. Was this because of the HD broadcast perhaps? It’s also really neat to see James Maddelena playing Nixon, much younger and not suffering from a cold! Other characters generally seem to have been cast stronger at the Met; especially Russell Braun’s Chou en Lai and Kathleen Kim’s Madame Mao who are much better than Sanford Sylvan and Trudy Ellen Craney. Decent performances though from John Duykers as Mao and Thomas Hammons making the most of the clownish Henry Kissinger. Mark Morris’ choreography again seems like one of the strongest elements of the production and he has excellent dancers here as in New York. The video direction though is wildly self indulgent. It’s Brian Large. Surprise!
One terrific strength of this recording is the linking segments by Walter Cronkite. He was in Peking during the Nixon visit and adds his insightful perspective in an intelligent and cultural aware way that one doubts many/any modern TV journalists could match. There’s also an interview with ab absurdly young looking John Adams. All in all, a fascinating watch.