I'm delighted I had (took) the chance to see the Met's HD Nixon in China today, and oddly, I'm just as glad I didn't see it when it first came out 24 years ago.
Why would this be? The simple reason is that this is an opera where I suspect just everything has to be first-class to make it work. And it's hard to think of any place that comes even close to the Met for supplying the support that the creators would need.
But more than that: we know so much more about Nixon than we did 24 years ago. We know more about how awful he was--but we've also come to to recognize what an interesting, challenging and in so many ways constructive person he could be. And it is hard to think of any opera that offers a complex hero with quite so much complexity and nuance. Peter Sellars in a commentary mentioned Mussorgsky--I assume he was thinking of Boris Godunov--and Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, two other stories of flawed and troubled leaders. This is a useful insight and it is a compliment to Sellars--and, oddly, to Nixon--that Nixon is able to stand in their company.
It's an imperfect work, for all that--almost three separate works, each act in an entirely different style, and some parts work perhaps better than others. In the first act, we see Nixon and Mao face to face in dialog. Here the librettist (Alice Goodman) works almost straight from the script. It's a delight to see/hear Nixon in all the creepy weirdness that we've come to know so well, and also Mao, floating free somewhere between sagacity and senility on a transit that neither he nor anyone else can quite follow.
The second act gives us Pat Nixon. I was thinking before I saw her that she might be the toughest nut to crack in this effort at recreation--so taciturn, so bitterly private. I think the creators did the right thing here: with Pat, in contrast to her husband and Mao, they simply didn't try all that hard to hew close to reality. They created a woman who could give herself voice and who came across as a plausible Pat, quite aside from the question whether she was the actual Pat.
But the second act was largely dominated by that hoariest of operatic staples: a ballet. Here it is that hoariest of Marxist staples, "The Red Detachment of Women," as recast by Mark Morris (and it is one of my great regrets after a lifetime of cultural gormandizing that I passed up a chance to see the real "Red Detachment of Women" in London back in the 70s). With one qualification that I'll get back to later, I thought it was a complete success: a full-blown panorama, at once funny and very scary, of the Chinese past, and of what the Maoists thought of their past. It ends with a show-stopping coloratura (three high C's), from Madam Mao (Kathleen Kim), fit company for Olympia or the Queen of the Night.
The third act I thought didn't work as well. The team tried to give us the back-narratives of the protagonists on interwoven musical lines. It was worth a try: the idea of listening to Nixon and Mao as they to explain and justify themselves was promising as a device for adding texture to their encounter. But the creators seemed to have cluttered things up a bit by trying also to interweave some insights from Chou En-Lai and Henry Kissinger, and it didn't help (Pat Nixon and and Madame Mao came along for the ride). The stage became too busy and unfocused. I'm not sure, it might have been the libretto and the characterization, maybe the music, perhaps the singers--maybe something as simple as the fact that their voices were not well enough delineated. But I found myself checking my watch.
Chou in particular was the one of the six who seems not fully thought out. Chou has always gotten a bye from western observers of China as the thinking man's Maoist, the suave and cultivated cosmopolitan who rose above the vulgarities and excesses of his boss--yet how he could survive at the top so long without some blood on his hands would seem to be a question. In any event, there's a problem here, and it is much like Pat Nixon's: Chou is too private,too guarded, too circumspect for easy presentation on stage. You'd have to take liberties like the creators took with Pat. For good reasons or bad, they didn't do so with Chou. (the fact that Chou was dying of cancer didn't make it--aren't we all dying of something?).
Which leaves Kissinger and here I think the creators missed a great opportunity With Nixon, they made a great success by presenting him in all his nuance. Kissinger, they just left as a clown. This isn't fair and worse, it isn't good theater: Kissinger is at least as complex and interesting as his boss and it was a shame not to present him so. Perhaps part of the problem is that they felt the need to run him into the ballet as a sexual predator. But of all Henry's indisputable vices, I'd say that sexual predation is probably quite a long way down the list. Granted that he liked to greet the photographers on the arm of a blonde a head taller than he, in a $7,000 frock. But by all accounts, he didn't bother stay the night: he'd slap her in a cab at 10 o'clock so he could go home and tuck in with a good book.
These failures are defects, but not fatal defects. Unlike so much new stuff, Nixon in China seems to have grown in esteem over its lengthening lifetime. As I say, I think we understand Nixon better; very likely we understand John Adams better; perhaps we understand ourselves better. It's an arresting piece of work and very much deserves its place in the very short list of new operas that might actually be worth seeing a second time.
Afterthought: just how many instances of oral sex will henceforth be regarded as the de rigueur minimum for a modern opera to be taken seriously. It's getting to be like the appearance of the brass band in Verdi. Tan tan tara.
Update: Mrs. Buce emails from home in Palookaville to recommend the NYT review by Max Frankel, who, whatever his chops as a music critic, enjoys the peculiar distinction of having been present on the tarmac at the original of the opening scene.