Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Oriana, Fairest Queen: Stile Antico celebrate the life and times of Elizabeth I

Stile Antico’s lunchtime play-list, celebrating the Virgin Queen’s long reign, shuffled between sacred and secular works, from penitential to patriotic, from sensual to celebratory.

Daniel Kramer's new La traviata at English National Opera

Verdi's La traviata is one of those opera which every opera company needs to have in its repertoire, and productions need to balance intelligent exploration of the issues raised by the work with the need to reach as wide an audience as possible with an opera which is likely to attract audience members who are not regular opera-goers.

Haydn's Applausus: The Mozartists at Cadogan Hall

Continuing their MOZART 250 series, The Mozartists/ Classical Opera began dipping into the operatic offerings of 1768 at Wigmore Hall in January, when they presented numbers from Mozart’s La finta semplice, Jommelli’s Fetonte, Hasse’s Pirano e Tisbe and Haydn’s Lo speziale.

Schubert Schwanengesang revisited—Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Schwanengesang isn't Schubert's Swan Song any more than it is a cycle like Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise. The title was given it by his publishers Haslingers, after his death, combining settings of two very different poets, Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine. Wigmore Hall audiences have heard lots of good Schwanengesangs, including Boesch and Martineau performances in the past, but this was something special.

Rinaldo: The English Concert at the Barbican Hall

“After such cruel events, I don’t know if I am dreaming or awake.” So says Almirena, daughter of the Crusader Goffredo, when she is rescued by her beloved warrior-hero, Rinaldo, from the clutches of the evil sorceress, Armida.

Hamlet abridged and enriched in Amsterdam

French grand opera and small opera companies are an unlikely combination. Yet OPERA2DAY, a company of modest means, is currently touring the Netherlands with Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.

The ROH's first production of From the House of the Dead

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production for the ROH of From the House of the Dead is ‘new’ in several regards. It’s (astonishingly) the first time that Janáček’s last opera has been staged at Covent Garden; it’s Warlikowski’s debut at Covent Garden; and the production uses a new 2017 critical edition prepared by John Tyrrell.

Così fan tutte at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With artifice, disguise, and questions on fidelity as the basis of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the composer’s mature opera has returned to the stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

WNO's Wheel of Destiny rolls into Birmingham

Welsh National Opera’s wheel of destiny has rolled into Birmingham this week, with Verdi’s sprawling tragedy, La forza del destino, opening the company’s ‘Rabble Rousing’ triptych at the Hippodrome.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal College of Music

The gossamer web of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sufficiently insubstantial and ambiguous to embrace multiple interpretative readings: the play can be a charming comic caper, a jangling journey through human pettiness and cruelty, a moonlit fairy fantasy or a shadowy erotic nightmare, and much more besides.

Robert Carsen's A Midsummer Night's Dream returns to ENO

Having given us Christopher Alden's strangely dystopic production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2011, English National Opera (ENO) has opted for Robert Carsen's bed-inspired vision for the latest revival of the opera at the London Coliseum.

Turandot in San Diego—Prima la voce

The big musical set pieces in Turandot require voice, voice, and more voice, and San Diego Opera has gifted us with a world-class cast of singing actors.

Dialogues de Carmélites at the Guildhall School: spiritual transcendence and transfiguration

Four years have passed since my last Dialogues des Carmélites, and on that occasion - Robert Carsen’s production for the ROH - heightened dramatic intensity, revolutionary insurrection (enhanced by an oppressed populace formed by a 67-strong Community Ensemble) and, under the baton of Simon Rattle, luxuriant musical rapture, were the order of the day.

'B & B’ in a new key

Seattle Opera’s new production of Béatrice et Bénédict is best regarded as a noble experiment, performed expressly to see if Berlioz’ delectable 1862 opéra comique can successfully be brought into the living repertory outside its native France. As such, it is quite a success.

Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall was transformed into a musical menagerie earlier this week, when bass-baritone Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and pianist Joseph Middleton took us on a pan-European lunchtime stroll through a gallery of birds and beasts, blooms and bugs.

Hugo Wolf, Italienisches Liederbuch

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean.

San Jose’s Dutchman Treat

At my advanced age, I have now experienced ten different productions of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in my opera-going lifetime, but Opera San Jose’s just might be the finest.

Mortal Voices: the Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court

The relationship between music and money is long-standing, complex and inextricable. In the Baroque era it was symbiotically advantageous.

I Puritani at Lyric Opera of Chicago

What better evocation of bel canto than an opera which uses the power of song to dispel madness and to reunite the heroine with her banished fiancé? Such is the final premise of Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani, currently in performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Iolanthe: English National Opera

The current government’s unfathomable handling of the Brexit negotiations might tempt one to conclude that the entire Conservative Party are living in the land of the fairies. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 operetta Iolanthe, the arcane and Arcadia really do conflate, and Cal McCrystal’s new production for English National Opera relishes this topsy-turvy world where peris consort with peri-wigs.



James Maddalena as Richard Nixon in Adam's
07 Feb 2011

Nixon in China, New York

Preparing for the Met premier of Nixon in China, I resolved to forget—or place on hold—everything I remembered, or thought I remembered, about the real persons who are characters in this opera,

John Adams: Nixon in China

Chou En-lai: Russell Braun; Nancy T’ang: Ginger Costa-Jackson; Richard Nixon: James Maddalena; Pat Nixon: Janis Kelly; Kissinger/Corrupt Landowner: Richard Paul Fink; Mao Tse-tung: Robert Brubaker; Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao): Kathleen Kim. Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by John Adams. Performance of February 2.

Above: James Maddalena as Richard Nixon

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera


to convince myself I knew no more about them than I do about, say, the Doges of Genoa or the Kings of Sweden (to recall other operas that mingle the political with the personal), and to attempt to appreciate the drama presented on stage, the music emanating from it (far too much of it coming through microphones), on that disinterested level.

This made for an intriguing but confusing evening: I suspect composer John Adams and his librettist, Alice Goodman, actually do want you to dwell on your recollections of Nixon, Mao, et al., to allow these to color their operatic take on events. Nixon is a meditation on the events of its era through the medium of opera, which is a new sort of focus to put on the form.

Nixon in China is not my kind of opera, but let us examine what kind of opera it is, and why the audience at the Met’s premiere—and at its earlier performances, in Houston, Brooklyn and around the world—have received it with enthusiasm.

There were, first of all, the performances, and for so many performances to delight an audience for three and a half hours argues that the composer has created parts that can be inventively sung, that give scope to the artist and joy to the listener. (This was not the case in the same composer’s Dr. Atomic, with its unconvincing dramatic trajectory and sidelong meditations.) True, all the singers were mic’d, at the composer’s insistence, as in all his operas, but some of them sounded mic’d and others—especially the women—did not.

Kathleen Kim as Madame Mao stole the show with her coloratura flights in the bravura number that concludes Act II, and was amusing in her down-and-dirty duet with the Chairman. Robert Brubaker, as Mao, sang rather too forcefully for a man tottering on the brink of the grave, brusquely demolishing every attempt at flattery offered him by the unconvincing Americans. (In an amusing touch, his statements are “translated” by three secretaries, producing just about the only vocal harmonies of the evening.) Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon was affectingly hopeful, singing almost conversationally, enduring the tedium of a First Lady’s tour and an unemotional marriage in an appealing, almost tragic performance. Richard Paul Fink made a deliciously sinister pixie of Henry Kissinger and also sang the brutal landlord figure in a Chinese Revolutionary opera. Russell Braun sang a fading, dignified, melancholy Chou En-lai. Only James Maddalena, who has sung the title role in most performances of the opera since its premiere in 1987, sounded, on his Met debut, either long past major roles or under a severe unannounced cold. All these except Mr. Maddalena held our attention, sinking their teeth into roles the composer had filled with juicy meat. There is not much in this opera of confrontation, of music that erupts from vocal interaction; it is, rather, a series of static narratives, drama almost in the Handelian manner, singing heads for talking heads, if you will.

For me, though, the vocal stars of the performance were the Met chorus, which has been extraordinary in everything for the last couple of years. Their pronunciation of words was especially crisp and clear, their enthusiasm of mood infectious when, say, abruptly transformed from Party guests to pig farmers. I think I’d enjoy the Met chorus if they were singing the phonebook. The Chinese phonebook.

NIXON_Act_1_scene_4195a.gifJanis Kelly as Pat Nixon, Teresa S. Herold as the Second Secretary to Mao, James Maddalena as Richard Nixon, Ginger Costa Jackson as the First Secretary to Mao, Russell Braun as Chou En-lai

The Peter Sellars production is very faithful to those shots I dimly remember of the original telecast of an earlier Sellars production. Those who saw Nixon in Brooklyn twenty years ago do not recall that Pat and Dick became so involved in the “Wicked Landlord Whips Peasant Girl” ballet in the Peking Opera scene, to the point of interfering with the characters onstage, but by that point in the story the naturalism of the first half of the opera was beginning to evaporate, borne on the wings of Adams’s repetitive, hypnotic accompaniments to unheard melodies. His mastery of suggestion became especially witty in the last act, the presentation of a row of beds occupied by all the characters as they suffer, chat, hallucinate, meditate, have sex or die: Pat recollects the dance music of forties films (two dancers oblige by reproducing such steps—Mark Morris created the witty choreography) and the orchestra plays no such tune but, rather, the tingling accompaniment that might lie beneath it, suggesting a step or a mood of elegance such as might linger in Pat’s mind from those forgotten, forgettable films and their hallucinations of romance. This in turn leads to a highly erotic reverie for the dying Mao and Chiang Ch’ing, whose marriage, however bloody it has become (and if we did not know all the hideous details twenty-five years ago, we certainly know them now), was once based upon a lustful and illicit affair, recalled joyously here.

The curious thing is that the audience for three or four hours of classical entertainment has come to delight in this sort of tableau, this elevation of the humans we have actually known to an archetypal status, and that opera is today considered the proper accolade to the achievement of a certain sort of celebrity, political or otherwise. This makes one wonder what opera, what singing rather than living, now implies to us. In the eighteenth century, operas seldom dealt with historical figures, and those that did dealt with ancient ones—Caesar, Cleopatra, Alfred the Great—in whom the monarchs of the day could see their own powers idealized, virtue rewarded, villainy dissipated. In the nineteenth century, when the bourgeois came to power, historical figures were shown in a lurid light, tainted by their power—and if they were not quite so antique, still, they were seldom closer in time than the previous century.

NIXON_Brubaker_and_Maddalen.gifRobert Brubaker as Mao Tse-tung and James Maddalena as Richard Nixon

Since World War II, especially in the United States, the operatic gift that has never quite seemed rooted in our soil has flowered into operatic treatments of Susan B. Anthony, Lizzie Borden, Carrie Nation, Malcolm X, Harvey Milk and J. Robert Oppenheimer—with Anna Nicole Smith soon to come. Whatever Ms. Smith’s charms, her celebrity seems of the most tendentious sort. Does anything about it call for gorgeous celebration? Is the whole idea not a spoof of opera to begin with? Do any of these pieces have the potential for a theatrical life removed from our memories of headlines? Yes: Susan B. Anthony had the luck to have an opera of genius written about her, The Mother of Us All. But the other works did not deal in archetypes; they are the musical equivalent of reportage, their substance gone once half the audience no longer knows what Nixon actually did. Modern celebrity opera is a sort of oral history if you like.

Returning to Nixon in China, one should mention that the piece was conducted by the composer, making his house debut, and that on several occasions it seemed to me that brasses and saxophones intruded a bit off-kilter and that certain rhythms were ragged—but I do not know the score well enough to be sure these moments were not intentional. There were moments of magic, especially in the “Peking Opera” ballet, and the final act was very beautiful, an extended concerted passage that never quite concerted: Nearly all the singers continued to sing alone, perhaps stressing their isolation in the drama, in the world. Or perhaps that was not the intent.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):