Most contemporary operas come and go while leaving nary a trace in the cultural zeitgeist. A rare exception is John Adams’ Nixon in China, which is finally making its debut at the Metropolitan Opera a mere 24 years after its world premiere.
The original creative team has largely reassembled for the auspicious occasion. Composer Adams will be conducting at all performances; director Peter Sellars has provided a virtual repeat of his acclaimed staging; and set designer Adrianne Lobel, costume designer Dunya Ramicova, lighting designer James F. Ingalls and choreographer Mark Morris are once again on board. The production even features the original star, baritone James Maddalena, who has nicely aged into his role as Nixon.
Unfortunately, the undeniably striking revival doesn’t provide further evidence that the opera is a modern masterpiece. Adams’ largely minimalist score has its stirring moments, but it is also endlessly repetitive. And Alice Goodman’s libretto concerning the history-making trip made by the stalwart cold warrior to the Communist country is a bit of a mess, veering wildly from realism to subtle satire to bizarre flights of absurdism.
The opening scene certainly remains stirring, featuring a massive reproduction of Air Force One landing in Peking and being greeted by Chinese premier Chou En-lai (Russell Braun) and a coterie of officials while the orchestra provides suitably bombastic fanfares.
As befitting the largely ceremonial events being depicts, there is little here in the way of plot. Nixon meets the now infirm Chairman Mao (Robert Brubaker), who proceeds to deliver a series of baffling pronouncements that leave his guests befuddled. A celebratory dinner follows, complete with laudatory toasts. And the president and his wife attend a performance of a revolutionary ballet created by Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing (Kathleen Kim), the plot of which so upsets the couple that they insert themselves into the action.
When all the pomp and circumstance is concluded, the pivotal figures retreat to their bedrooms, where they ponder the significance of what they have accomplished? “Have we done anything that was good?” movingly sings Chou.
The piece is most affecting in its quieter moments, such as Pat Nixon’s quiet aria in which she sings about the path in life she has taken. With the exception of Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink), who is reduced to something of a caricature (he even shows up as a villain in the ballet), the characters are depicted with surprisingly dignity.
Despite the fact that the singers are amplified, the vocals are frequently buried by the orchestra’s volume, with Maddalena in particular frequently having trouble making himself heard above the general din.
For all its flaws, Nixon in China is a work that deserves a place in the operatic repertory, especially since it is the rare example of one dealing with relatively current events. Those unable to procure tickets for one of the Met performances will have the opportunity to see the Feb. 12 matinee being simulcast in movie theaters worldwide as part of The Met: Live in HD series. It is also scheduled to be broadcast on PBS stations later this year.
Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center. 212-362-6000. www.metopera.org.
You probably haven’t heard of them yet, but it’s only a matter of time until you do. Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk are a musical theater composing team who has won virtually every prize there is for promising up-and-comers, including the Kleban, Jonathan Larson and Richard Rodgers awards. They have a new musical, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, opening this summer at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre, and they’ve just released their debut CD, Our First Mistake, available now from Sh-K-Boom Records.
Featuring melodic, pop-style songs with wittily incisive lyrics, the terrific album features an eclectic line-up of singers, including stars like Kelli O’Hara and Laura Osnes as well as various Broadway performers and such recording artists as singer/pianist Vienna Teng.
You can hear songs from the album performed live this Monday night (Feb. 7) at Le Poisson Rouge, located at 158 Bleecker Street in the West Village. Part of a concert series dubbed the You Made This Tour, the show features a roster of performers including Matt Doyle (Spring Awakening), Kate Shindle (Legally Blonde), Meghann Fahy (Next to Normal), Osnes and many others. Showtime is 10pm, and tickets are a very reasonable $20. You can purchase them at www.lepoissonrouge.com or by calling 212-505-3474.
Upcoming dates include shows as the Canal Room (Feb. 28, 7pm) and again at Le Poisson Rouge (Mar. 27, 7pm).
Book Reviews: Best American Short Plays of 2008-2009 ; Applause Libretto Library Series - The Sound of Music, Avenue Q, Oklahoma!
If the one-act play form is an endangered species, the folks at Applause Theatre & Cinema Books don’t seem to know it. They’ve just released The Best American Short Plays 2008-2009, the latest annual edition of their invaluable long-running series. Edited by Barbara Parisi, this reasonably priced ($18.99) collection includes sixteen works by playwrights both well known (Neil LaBute, David Ives, Murray Schisgal) and obscure. While not every piece is a winner, there are enough gems here to make one wonder why so few theaters—the Ensemble Studio Theater’s annual one-act play marathon being a notable exception—are willing to take a chance on producing short works.
The same publisher has also issued three new installments of their Applause Libretto Library Series, comprised of trade paperback versions of notable Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals. Designed for general reading rather than production purposes, these versions feature the complete dialogue and lyrics to each show, plus (in most cases) an introduction by a notable theater expert, and a selection of color photos.
The current crop includes two Rodgers & Hammerstein classics, Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music (the latter with an introduction by Timothy Crouse, son of co-book writer Russel Crouse) and the rather more contemporary Avenue Q, the long-running Tony Award-winning musical featuring hilariously profane puppets and such irreverent musical numbers as “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn.”
The Best American Short Plays (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, $18.99)
The Sound of Music, Avenue Q, Oklahoma! (Applause Theater & Cinema Books, $16.99 each)
The Metropolitan Opera’s determination to dust off its cobwebs is in further evidence with its new production of Verdi’s 1853 masterwork La Traviata. Willy Decker’s modernistic staging, which premiered to great acclaim five years ago at the Salzburg Festival, couldn’t be more different from the lavish Franco Zeffirelli warhorse it has replaced.
Featuring a sterling dramatic and musical performance by Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya in her Met debut, the production is a highly visceral and theatrical rendition that emphasizes the work’s emotional complexities in often striking fashion.
Performed on a mostly bare set dominated by a massive curving white wall and a giant clock that all too symbolically emphasizes the short time the Parisian courtesan Violetta has left to live, the staging will no doubt provoke the usual debate between traditionalists and those who want the Met to go off in new directions.
The work is performed in modern dress, in accordance with the composer’s (unfulfilled) wish that it not be performed as a period piece. In the first act party scene, Violetta is clad in a glamorous red cocktail dress, while the male characters are in dark business suits.
The director has choreographed the production with exacting detail, often positioning the massive Met chorus in stylized fashion, such as when they peer over the wall overlooking on the action as if an overpopulated Greek chorus.
There are other striking touches. The heretofore minor character of Doctor Grenvil (Luigi Roni) now hovers nearly constantly on the stage as a visual representation of Violetta’s impending doom. When her lover Alfredo (Matthew Polenzani) angrily confronts her, he doesn’t throw money at her feet but rather stuffs it into her cleavage and up her skirt. And Alfredo’s confrontation with his father (Andrzej Dobber) turns physical, culminating in a slap that sends the young man reeling to the floor. There is no intermission between the second and third acts, with the result that the evening’s second half (or more accurately, two thirds) possesses a strong dramatic momentum.
Although she has to strain at times to reach her high notes, Poplavskaya delivers a powerful vocal turn, and certainly cuts a dramatic and sexy figure. Polenzani handles his romantic arias beautifully, and Dobber sings and acts superbly in the powerful scene in which the father asks Violetta to abandon his son.
The directorial conceits thankfully never become oppressive, although at times there is a distracting self-consciousness to the proceedings. But whatever the flaws or merits of this production, it’s hard not to admire the Met’s willingness to take chances on even its most cherished staples.
Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center
Unless you’re planning a trip to Italy anytime soon, you might want to head over the Park Avenue Armory, where filmmaker Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & Her Lover, The Draughtsman’s Contract) has installed his massive recreation/deconstruction of Leonardo da Vinci’s classic painting The Last Supper.
Entitled Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway, this high-tech multi-media installation is ultimately more impressive on a technical rather than aesthetic level. But it does provide the opportunity for visitors to feast on a perfect replication of da Vinci’s masterpiece, which is currently rapidly deteriorating in its home inside the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery in Milan.
Greenaway has made a late career specialty out of elaborate digital explorations of classic artworks, most of them presented in the same venues housing the original works. This traveling installation actually combines two of his previous efforts, the other being a treatment of Paolo Veronese’s late-Renaissance work The Wedding at Cana.
Upon entering the armory’s cavernous drill hall, visitors are first regaled with a giant-screen video and music montage featuring scenic footage of various Italian locations and digitally enhanced shots of a ballet dancer leaping about.
From there, we enter the main area, which includes a three-dimensional re-creation of the Last Supper dining table, rendered entirely in white. On the opposite side is a life-sized duplication of the iconic painting, which anyone who’s seen the original knows has aged badly.
Greenaway compensates for this with digital enhancement that restores the once vibrant colors. For the next 20-30 minutes, different sections of the painting are highlighted in ways that call attention to details that might otherwise be missed. Projected images of small sections from the painting, rendered in close-up, are seen on large screens surrounding the space. It’s all suitably accompanied by religious music.
The overall effect is undeniably arresting in a high-tech way, if ultimately rather repetitive and gimmicky. The piece might have been better served by a little less visual trickery and the addition of some narration that might have provided some historical and artistic context.
And the addition of the similar treatment of Cana seems less essential to the overall experience than an attempt to justify the rather high $15 admission charge.
Still, this represents an intriguing idea, one that its creator apparently aims to use in exploring other masterworks in the future. Despite this piece’s limitations, the overall goal, which is to make us see classic works of art in new and unexpected ways, is one to be encouraged.
Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave. 212-616-3939. www.armoryonpark.org. Through Jan. 6.