Anne Midgette reviews 'Nixon in China,' finally on stage at the Metropolitan Opera

Janis Kelly, far left, as Pat Nixon, Teresa S. Herold as second secretary to Mao, James Maddalena as Richard Nixon, Ginger Costa Jackson as first secretary to Mao, and Russell Braun as Chou En-Lai in John Adams's "Nixon in China" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Janis Kelly, far left, as Pat Nixon, Teresa S. Herold as second secretary to Mao, James Maddalena as Richard Nixon, Ginger Costa Jackson as first secretary to Mao, and Russell Braun as Chou En-Lai in John Adams's "Nixon in China" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:22 AM

IN NEW YORK When John Adams's opera "Nixon in China" had its world premiere in 1987, it was provocative, edgy, audacious. 24 years later, it's come to the Metropolitan Opera and, along the way, become a Modern Masterpiece.

Wednesday night's premiere was a big event: The crowd was lively, star-studded, and abuzz. It marked not only the Met's first performance of this opera, but also the company debuts of Adams, who conducted, and Peter Sellars, who came up with the original concept and directed the original production, and who has, incredibly, moved from enfant terrible to veteran maverick without ever before having directed at this venue.

So the evening was about the move from edginess to canonization, from provoking the audience to being embraced by one of the largest institutions in the business. For many in attendance, there was a kind of avuncular pride in seeing a piece they remembered when it was brand-new, now all grown up - a sense of arrival that arguably creates an even bigger thrill than seeing a brand-new work get a Met premiere.

In becoming canonical, though, a piece can lose some of its sharp edges, worn down over time. Opera tends to have this effect on its subjects in any case. A singing Nixon was a far more benign figure than a real, talking Nixon, even in 1987, just as a singing Boris Godunov or a singing Anne Boleyn are tragic but ahistoric heroes. And "Nixon in China" doesn't present the historical Nixon as such: Rather, his epochal trip to China in 1972 becomes an allegory of alienation and the difficulties of communication. In a final ensemble, the Nixons and the Chinese leaders (Mao Zedong, Chou En-Lai) muse on the futility of everything they've done, putting a liberal's happy ending on a fairy-tale version of a somber reality.

Sellars's production, which opened in 2006 at the English National Opera (a company that's become a testing ground for Met productions), emphasized the symbolic aspects of the characters from the start, when Nixon's airplane descended from above, a huge two-dimensional facade. When Nixon (sung by James Maddalena, who originated the role and has sung it many times since) appeared at the top of the gangway, the audience broke into applause almost reflexively, as if responding to the idea of a presidential entrance, and Maddalena gave a politician's wave that broke through the fourth wall.

The idea of mammoth facades was continued in the third act with a large portrait of Mao - and was undermined by repeated scenes of Pat Nixon and her husband in their hotel room, in bed.

The idea of contrast between public grandiloquence and intimacy has been a staple of operas from "Don Carlo" to "Boris." But this opera never gets too private because the figures remain symbols rather than real people. The point doesn't seem to be to give insight into the characters; rather, we get a canvas depicting the smallness and ineffectualness of man against the inexorable march of history, a "War and Peace" theme, but without the compelling story to hold it together.

"Nixon in China's" action is mainly in its young, antic score, which is the most bracing and in-your-face aspect of the whole thing. Those patrons used to the richer palette of Adams's 2005 "Doctor Atomic" may forget how much minimalism there is in early Adams - this opera picks up where Philip Glass's "Satyagraha" leaves off, with similar ascending scales in the opening chorus.

But this score is also rife with operatic quotation: lots of Strauss and Wagner mixed in with the driving repetitions, giving ironic emphasis to big moments. The action, too, echoes operatic tradition, down to the play-within-a-play ballet (staged by Mark Morris), where the Nixons start to blur the distinction between theater and reality (think "The King and I").

The casting suffered a bit from the same tendency as the rest of the evening to elevate every aspect of this work into something slightly larger or more sacrosanct than it is - at least in the use of Maddalena, who did a great job portraying Nixon as an actor but whose voice simply sounded frayed. Russell Braun showed a deepening, firm sound as Chou En-Lai, and Janis Kelly did herself proud in her company debut, portraying a character, Pat Nixon, who is even less sure of who she is and why she is there than her husband.

Mao, a heldentenor, was sung solidly by Robert Brubaker. Kathleen Kim was strident to the point of hysteria in her first appearance as Madame Mao in a big temper tantrum of a chorus that ends Act II, but she rose well to the more lyrical, "I-remember-when" moments of Act III, when she and Mao revisit their youth. Richard Paul Fink made a muted Kissinger, a buffo role that wasn't quite as funny as it seemed (those blunted edges again).

There are things that frustrate me no end about "Nixon in China." I find the purple language to lead the opera into longueurs it doesn't need to have; I don't think the action of the story needs to be so opaque, particularly since the music is so vivid.

The opera takes refuge, in verbiage and spectacle, from actually making a point consistent with the characters it deploys. "Was there any point to any of it?" is hardly the kind of conclusion we've been primed for.

But the music, even in Adams's own energetic but technically approximate conducting, holds up well. And when I think about all of the faults in the other operas that I have no problem embracing in the standard repertory, I can only second what seemed to be the opinion of the audience: that it is a happy thing when a contemporary work comes full circle and takes its place among them.

Nixon in China will be broadcast live in HD in theaters on Feb. 12. It will have five more performances at the Met through Feb. 19.

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