BY ELI JACOBSON | Opera is obsessed with history but seldom with recent political history. When John Adams’ “Nixon in China” premiered in 1987, 15 years after the events depicted in the opera transpired, Richard and Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing (Mme. Mao) were all still very much alive. Minimalism was the cutting-edge musical trend, and composer John Adams and choreographer Mark Morris were firebrands of the avant-garde. The director Peter Sellars was a brilliant wunderkind, barely 30 years old.
Time has passed, and the term “CNN Opera” has been coined for opera dealing with current or recent events — “Malcolm X” and “Harvey Milk,” for example. Minimalist scores turn up regularly on movie soundtracks, the genre considered tame, even passé in many quarters. Adams, Sellars, and Morris are now respected grand old men in their fields.
“Nixon in China” has been performed locally twice — at BAM in 1987 (after its Houston world premiere) and in a semi-staged concert in 1999 by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Since then, the opera has entered the repertories of regional and international opera houses. Its entry into the Metropolitan Opera repertoire was not an act of musical daring but the final step in its mainstream acceptance.
Is the work dated, faded, and passé or an eternal masterpiece? Is “Nixon in China” yesterday’s news? I offer no ex-cathedra judgment but instead my account of its effect on me as a listener.
The repeated, pulsating orchestral ostinatos give a sense of buzzing excitement, unresolved tensions, fidgety nervousness, and at times boredom — all appropriate in different ways to the dramatic subject. Adams has an imaginative, multifaceted flair for orchestration — drawing on big band, rock, and Chinese folk music to give his score a variety of colors. The composer, who also served as conductor in his Met debut, also has an ear for the expressive potential of operatic voices. He uses the distinctive colors of the lyric soprano, spiky high coloratura, and mellow baritone voices to create vivid theatrical characters.
The first act presents the public face of the characters as presented to the world. We see the descent from the presidential plane, the public conference, and the grand dinner reception, each relayed globally via news cameras. Politics as public spectacle played out for the mass media.
The second act shifts to the women, as we see Pat Nixon experience epiphanies while touring factories, school, and monuments. Pat and Dick — and even Henry Kissinger’s doppelgänger as the villain — get swept into a performance of Mme. Mao’s propagandist ballet “The Red Detachment of Women.” Mme. Mao ends the act with a bravura aria, whipping the audience into submission with brilliant staccati.
Things shift inward in Act III, as the five protagonists indulge in internal monologues and soul-searching duets and ensembles. Each character searches their past, pondering the significance of this historic meeting. Chou En-lai wonders, “How much of what we did was good?”
Of the six major characters, Pat Nixon emerges as the fully rounded human being. Mrs. Nixon, known in her days of public prominence as Plastic Pat, has come into her own as a subject of art — from Joan Allen’s revelatory portrait in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” to this operatic incarnation. The other multi-dimensional character is Chou En-lai, the philosopher and man of conscience. Nixon naturally has the most to do in Act I but fades to a secondary figure in Act II. In Act III, he is reduced to remembering his days in the Pacific during World War II. Mao Tse-tung and his consort emerge as sock puppets or wily cardboard villains as does the urbane Henry Kissinger, here a crude buffoon.
Alice Goodman’s verse libretto has been praised. I was less convinced that the often abstruse stream-of-consciousness monologues assigned to these real-life figures accurately reflected their character, even though their memoirs were consulted.
The first act seemed grandiose but strangely stiff, tedious, and flat, as many orchestrated state visits do. The second act came to exciting life as external reality and internal fantasy intermingled — the natural stuff of opera. Act III to me was stultifyingly boring; the story and characters seemed adrift in poetic abstraction.
Peter Sellars’ production — an expansion of his 1987 original — is still effective with its two-dimensional, brightly colored, poster-like visuals. Some sexual crudities involving Mao’s cadre of secretary-concubines have been added, apparently Sellars’ attempt to keep up with the times. Much better was the reference to China’s history of violent repression, from the Cultural Revolution to the Tiananmen Square massacre, introduced into the finale of Morris’ “Red Detachment” ballet.
The only holdover from the original cast was James Maddalena, whose insecure, stiff manner and air of existential angst brought layers to the character of Nixon despite some shaky vocalism. Janis Kelly was a radiant Pat Nixon, her face aglow with discovery and later clouded by disillusionment. Her bright soprano was the aural embodiment of American optimism. Robert Brubaker sang heroically in Mao’s impossible vocal range, even as he offered a doddering physical portrayal. Kathleen Kim brought vocal energy to Chiang Ch’ing’s big scena, though her light voice seemed more in need of the electronic amplification, mandated by the composer, than the others. Russell Braun’s soft-grained baritone radiated Chou En-lai’s nobility, while Richard Paul Fink’s harder-edged sound perfectly suited Kissinger.
The piece did not seem dated. It is, however, an overlong work in need of editing, with an unsatisfying final act. But in this early work, Adams reveals a flair for musical expression essential to operatic composition. Several audience members were ecstatic to see it at the Met, while others were polite but bored.