Saturday, February 12, 2011

Review of the Met Live in HD Nixon in China; Live Cinema and Superhuman Orchestral Playing

(Photo by Ken Howard Courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera)

According to one of the earliest credits at the end of the Met Live in HD production of Nixon in China this event was "directed for live cinema by Peter Sellars." Sellars created a stunning sequence of close-ups and elegant camera movements that added a structurally significant visual element to this production.

The curtain opened to a stage filled with silent motionless people. Sellars immediately began to show us individual faces and frozen expressions. Ingmar Bergman's 1975 film version of Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte opened in a related energy--it focused on individual faces in the audience while the overture played. Sellars tapped into this world while the John Adams score explored ways in which a rising A-minor scale can quietly shift into surprising modalities.

The public was an audience; both onstage and in cinema's across the world. "Just now," sang James Maddalena as Nixon in Act One Scene I, "the world was listening."

If the Sellars closeups were any closer we would have seen sinuses. But the cumulative impact of these angles was undeniable. We felt intimately connected to these characters.

The Met orchestra played with both patience and intensity. They articulated the rich complexity of rhythmic currents in this score with such focus and endurance that larger relationships, frictions, and cross-currents became newly audible and seemed to motivate and carry the singers.

The ending act of the opera was described as a "subtle large-scale decrescendo" by Thomas May in an engaging article in the 2010-2011 Met "Season Book."

This production did not sound this way. The subtle tensions produced by the Met orchestra and the stretto of simultaneous vocal conversations produced a gripping intensification throughout the third act that seemed to resolve only as Russell Braun, as Chou En-Lai, sang the closing reflection: "I am old and I cannot sleep forever, like the young."

Nixon in China was an idiomatic "Live in HD" transmission. Its cross-currents of musical style and complex rhythmic surfaces sounded at home coming across a cinematic sound system. It was music that spoke to the 21st century without an accent.

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