Review: Nixon in China

© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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.