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A Tricky New Classic

Nixon in China, like Nixon himself, does best when Mao is around.

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Fifteen years elapsed between Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and the world premiere in Houston of John Adams’s operatic retelling. Another 24 years have gone by since then: long enough for the puzzlement (a singing president on the lyric stage?) to fade, long enough even to dispel the feeling that Nixon in China describes a “current event.” In 1987, most of the principal characters could have sat in the audience and watched their onstage doubles; today, only Kissinger remains alive. Adams and the librettist, Alice Goodman, anticipated that distance, treating a state visit as a mythic encounter in the Elysian fields. Now that the novelty has flaked away, what endures is a string of gnomic couplets that never quite adds up to a story, and a splendid score that resembles a Wyoming prairie: a simple crust hiding a labyrinth of hillocks and coulees.

When Air Force One lowered onto the stage of a packed Metropolitan Opera last week and a familiar figure appeared in the doorway with his jerky wave, Nixon in China completed its journey into the heart of American opera. That’s where it belongs. Silly Reagan-era debates over whether art should avoid entanglements with recent history obscured the importance of a transformative score that demonstrated the full range of what Minimalism could accomplish. Philip Glass had written Minimalist operas, including the epochal Einstein on the Beach in 1976, but those offered only ceremony, shimmer, and stasis. In his first stage work, Adams showed that the pared-down toolbox of standard harmonies, chugging rhythms, unembellished scales, and patient repetitions could yield an old-fashioned bone-and-gristle drama. The early Minimalism of the sixties and seventies unfurled an endless untroubled “now.” Nixon in China embraced memory and foreboding, fantasy and melancholy. Adams has continued to tackle the murderously operatic twentieth century in other stage works, always with abundant syncopations, built-up layers, and teeming orchestration, but never with the subtle eloquence of his first attempt.

“News!” exclaims Nixon after he has stepped off the plane, and in that lone syllable we get the character virtually complete. His utterance is jittery and clipped (“News. News. Newsnewsnewsnews … has a, has a, has a, has a kind of mystery”), and nervousness pervades the jangling orchestra in quick blurts of brass and trembling flutes. Adams demonstrates his power to depict a private crisis in a public place, to thicken an atmosphere with a juddering blast, to follow the contours of a character’s emotions. It helps that orchestras have learned to negotiate the composer’s ever-shifting mixtures of relentlessness and refinement. The Met’s marvelous ensemble, intimate with Adams’s style from the experience of Doctor Atomic two years ago, gives breath to rising, repeating scales that look primitive on the page, finds the flexibility within those lattice structures, and brings out shades and highlights among the primary hues.

The Met has reassembled the original creative crew: director Peter Sellars (making a belated company debut), set designer Adrienne Lobel, costume designer Dunya Ramicova, and lighting designer James Ingalls. Mark Morris has restaged his brilliant interpretation of The Red Detachment of Women, a violent propaganda ballet originally commissioned by Madame Mao during the Cultural Revolution and performed for the president and Pat. The indispensable James Maddalena sings Nixon, as he has been doing all over the world for most of his career, and captures uncannily that distinctively repulsive charisma. The composer himself conducts. With so much authenticity involved, the performance feels a bit like a historical reenactment of a show that itself reenacts a historical event.

Nixon was and remains a momentous work, but a self-conscious sense of its own importance nearly crushes the opera at times. “Throughout the composing, I felt like I was pregnant with the royal heir, so great was the attention focused on it,” Adams has written. Sellars, too, contributed a chaotic and magniloquent politico-musical philosophy. “Mozart’s structure of radical equality made Thomas Jefferson’s words reality,” he wrote recently. “We extended Mozart’s principles across the length of Act III, weaving a syncopated personal and social fabric of equality across East and West …” Well, it was the American Revolution that gave reality to Jefferson’s words, and contrary to what Sellars seems to think, Nixon in China does not one-up The Marriage of Figaro.

For one thing, it’s missing a plot. Nixon’s trip realigned the world and led, eventually, to today’s tangled economic Chinese-American partnership, but Adams, Goodman, and Sellars have less interest in geopolitics than in a Shakespearean exploration of the inner lives of legends. Here’s the president sweatily suffering flashbacks to his service in World War II, and Chou En-lai (Russell Braun) making a florid toast. There’s the magnetic Janis Kelly as Pat, confessing “I come from a poor family” in a rising arpeggio that rides a cloud of strings, a musical literalization of uplift and social mobility. Later, Kathleen Kim presents Pat’s Chinese counterpart—Chiang Ch’ing, a.k.a. Madame Mao—as a slightly comical villainess, singing steely coloratura against a curtain of bitter fanfares. Adams delineates characters in confident strokes, but Goodman frames them in set pieces, not as elements in an unfolding play of relationships. Rather than humanize politicians usually seen in packaged TV appearances, the libretto does the opposite, transfiguring actual people into stylized effigies who alternate soliloquies and sing past each other but hardly interact.

It’s a fault that Adams converts into musical strength. In the second scene, Nixon huddles with an aged but still ferocious Mao Tse-tung. This meeting of amoral potentates resonates with Verdi’s Don Carlo, when King Philip II of Spain consults the Grand Inquisitor about the acceptability of murdering his own son. Adams luxuriates in the parallels. Stirring Verdi’s sepulchral mode together with the clanging intensity of dark-tinged psychedelic rock, the passage establishes Mao’s epic determination. In Robert Brubaker’s impressive performance, the Chairman scoffs at America’s foreign wars and declares China ready to repel an invasion of Western money. “Our armies do not go abroad,” he sings, supported by a squealing clarinet, a stomping bass line, relentless piano chords, and staccato brass. He draws his might from the orchestra, and next to him, Nixon comes off as a piker.

Nixon in China
By John Adams.
The Metropolitan Opera.
Through February 19.


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