Monday, May 29, 2006

Nixon

Bit of a half-assed write-up of Nixon in China in Chicago, I think. Vacation from work=vacation from blog? Apparently not. Blog springs eternal.

One of my sources/correspondents opines that Nixon, with its several upcoming productions, should be liberated from all influences of Sellars, and step on it. Still, I'd like to see the video of the Houston premiere production [I am positive I saw a video of it in, um, well, high school, but it must have been one of those things on Great Performances that was banished to outer space, because I've never seen any mention of it since...] because I'm dying to know if the third act makes a whit of sense in a more literal production, which I believe Houston/Sellars was.

I know NiC primarily from the highlights disc, which is wonderful, but apparently also not really representative. The tracks on there give it a feel of being poetic but not impenetrably abstract. And unless there are just some stage directions that got tossed out the window by an ambitious director, that's not the case. This is closer kin to Gertrude Stein than to Giancarlo Menotti. And yeah, I guess I'm coming from a somewhat conservative place vis a vis narrative in my art, for better or worse. I'm the guy who thinks Vanessa is a perfect libretto. I mean, jeez.

So the second and third acts--literal sense seemed less and less important as the evening wore on--was a long scratching of the head, but vocally pretty satisfying. Word is it was amplified, right? Puzzling, since Robert Orth still sounded lacklustre down low, the only truly weak part of an overall strong run through the role (which he repeats in Cinci and Houston, as do several of his colleagues.) Maria Kanyova was very much his equal as Pat, in an unfussy performance that lost little dignity during some of the more clueless directorial moments. One awaits her Glimmerglass Jenufa with heightened interest. I think, in fact, all the principals created viable characters, worthy of later reflection, but thanks to Alice Goodman mostly, only in a sidelong fashion.

As on the recording, the most distinguished reading was that of Chou En Lai (there: the wonderful Sanford Sylvan; here: the calmly enthralling Chen Ye Yuan) Chou gets some of the most quietly wunderbar music in the piece, and Chen, like Sylvan, decants it aristocratically.

Of course I think we were all waiting for the well hyped Kathleen Kim in the ball-breaking role of Qiang Qing, the wife of Mao. To hear her aria "I am the Wife of Mao Tse Tung" is to go around humming it for 72 hours or so until you bust yourself smartly over the head with a curling stone in despair. Really a masterpiece not just of 20th century op lit but the whole damn shindig. Ms. Kim did not shrink from it until the end, where she skipped the final trips into the ionosphere for lower options, and it would be idiotic to complain, as 98% of the rest of it was solid stuff. When I listen to the aria next I'm sure I'll see her in my head, standing surely under 5 feet (my compatriot in stature) with an uzi* in hand, looking just about ready to use it. The amplification and her tiny, tremulous vibrato makes it hard to judge quite what's going on with the voice, but LOC is lately much in the habit of turning out killer voices, so I'll be watching to see where she goes.

Mao, too, is a cruelly written role, and I'm not sure how to judge Mark Duffin on it. His tone was no day at the beach, but he was persuasive and quite comprehensible over an orchestra that wasn't doing anyone any favors.

Moments of the production were certainly a success--Pat Nixon's whole scene in Act II conveyed character without too much concrete to go on--but the overall feel was one of adolescent striving, a concept piece that's just a little too high maintenance. Two of the things that serve as warnings to me turned up early on: a mute but Clearly Very Meaningful character meandering about, doing things like sprinkling snow from above (an activity endorsed by the Clearly Very Meaningful Mute Characters' Union) and a bunch of television screens. In the end, I couldn't much say that either really merited its inclusion.

At intermission I ran into my friend who used to write as Enzo Bordello, one of the folks whose opera-writing back in r.m.o. days taught me opera. Now there's someone whose blogging we'd all like to read, but alas, his work eats up all his time, I think.

*Uzi? I think uzi. Try not to perish from the shock of it when I say I wasn't one of the kids who sat around drawing artillery in middle school.

Next up: lordy, not so much. Potentially naught 'til Caramoor.

20 comments:

straussmonster said...

Greetings from parts foreign...

Oh, I always liked his posts, too. :)

Anonymous said...

First time visitor to the site; enjoyed your NiC write-up. Too naive to know if this OK to say or not, but the House of Opera dvd of the original Houston production (including Cronkite's intermission features on the PBS broadcast), is probably the best item I've ever purchased from this unusual source.

Chalkenteros said...

yeah i remember seeing nixon on tv on pbs in like the 80s. maybe it will surface on YouTube. If Carrie: The Musical can make it to YouTube, so can Nixon in China.

Ariadne said...

Not so weirdly, I've never seen Nixon in China, but the various reviews have engaged my interest. (I was going to say "piqued" but that's too bad a pun even for me, since that's a role I will be studying). Will have to check out House of Opera to find it/ even more ways to spend money I don't have...

Apropos of Adams/Sellars operas, can someone please tell me what the "point" of Doctor Atomic is? I have read and read every word of reviews written about it, and I'm just not sure:

Is it a love story, a historical allegory of some sort, or what?

I mean I know the bomb explodes and their marriage is strained because he's a workaholic scientist.

I know everyone was disappointed there wasn't more "BANG" when the bomb goes off, and there was some bizarre stage business with a sheaf of wheat or something.

And do I get it we're supposed to be all impressed because it's "important" but, still, what's the point? Is there a point? Help!

Maury D'annato said...

Thanks for the tip, anon, and thanks for reading.

Straussmonster: when you getting back, eh?

Chalkenteros: was Carrie really filmed? It ran like seven performances...

Ariadne: I can't help w/ Atomic, though I thought I heard there was a mad scene, and we all love a mad scene.

Greg said...

I have, as you know, many thoughts on the subject, but I thought I'd assure you that, no, in a more representational staging the third act doesn't make a whit more sense -- although you can imagine that the fact that it recalls Gertrude Stein is a plus in my book. The point, for me, is that the incessant realism of Act I (in which much of the libretto is drawn word-for-word from newspaper accounts) is trascended in Act III, moving into a realm of fantasy, memory, and dream-logic.

Like anon said, you can buy the Great Performances telecast on House of Opera... and it's currently on sale for $10. Run don't walk.

Greg said...

Um, I mean, traNscended. Dammit.

Paul said...

Given the fact that the Uzi is a weapon designed and manufactured in Israel, it's highly unlikely that someone from a Communist nation would be carrying one. I'm guessing it's an AK-47.

BTW, if you're in Chicago for any length of time, perhaps you ca check out Jordan Shanahan - if he's singing anywhere. He's the newest member of the Lyric's Young Artist Program, and a terrific baritone.

Chalkenteros said...

Good news about the availability of Nixon on DVD!

And yes, there are video clips of a live recording of Carrie, from Stratford, though, not Broadway; therefore with Barbara Cook, and not Betty Buckley. But don't get me started; I'm obsessed with this trash.

Shame on me.

Maury D'annato said...

Greg: well, you know, it's not that I insist on everything being ploddingly literal or representational or anything, but I was surprisingly put off by the third act. It's really pretty music but I could have used some kind of referential frame. I don't get the point of having the opera progress from something like documentary to imagism. Just me...

Gary said...

I was at Saturday's NiC in Chicago, and agree with your assessment for the most part. It was definitely amped, though -- binoculars easily revealed (from my aerie in the first row of the balcony, at least) the mics glued to the side of the head (Orth) or the center of the hairline (most of the rest).

Greg said...

Adams explicitly calls for aplification of the voices in the score.

rysanekfreak said...

This is just too Twilight Zone for words. This morning, I bought a brand-new still-wrapped-in-plastic
"Nixon in China" CD set for a quarter!!!! And if you knew what part of rural Oklahoma I'm in, you would realize how impossibly bizarre this is.

Now, I find this thread. I believe this is God's way of telling me that He wants me to listen to "Nixon in China." Right now.

Maury D'annato said...

Adams calls for amplification? That is a relief, and also disturbing at the same time. Does it make me some kind of conservative that I don't think it's really opera if they don't have to perform the athletic act of projecting over an orchestra? I sound like I'm hating on Nixon and I'm totally not. Just...it feels like a slippery slope from "Adams calls for amplification" to "hey, we've got the amp, and our thin, chic-looking Tosca isn't really all that loud..."

Anonymous said...

Hey, cugino, I no thinka you mean Uzi. In Korea the Chinese used something called a "burp gun" because of the noise it made. It was an adaptation of a Russian sub-machine gun, and was said to be suitable for the uneducated masses because it had only three moving parts. Only one in three or four of the charging hordes was equipped with any weapon at all; the rest just made blood-curdling yells as they advanced.

Distinti saluti.

You cousn Louie Tremava

Anonymous said...

Oh thanks. Now I have had Qiang Qing's aria going through my head for 6 days (and I only ever heard the opera twice or three times when it was first out on video 437 years ago. I guess that says much for the potency of the aria, but Holy Jeebus). I love your blog, but the mental cruelty....

Maury D'annato said...

Howdy anon. Thanks and sorry respectively! I'm serious, smack yourself over the head with something. Or else listen to something else sufficiently catchy to displace it, and then go around with (say) "Com'e gentil" in your head for the next six days. Repeat as needed, with increasingly unshakeable tunes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the concern and the suggestion. I have ended up with Marietta's Lied in my head instead. But your suggestion of Com'e gentil (a fave of mine, as it happens), was extremely useful as it reminded me to get all my Schipa cd's back from the friend I lent them to two years ago. Bless you, Maury, for the many ways you enrich my life.

Bill said...

I've seen the "Great Performances" video of Nixon... a friend of mine in the opera world has a bootleg. Suffice it to say that it's quite substandard, which is why Adams, Sellars et al never allowed it to be released. It was recorded at one of the first performances (I think perhaps even the second night) and the cast and orchesta are all quite shaky.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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