The bravos, the cheers, began at the very beginning, as the conductor approached the podium. They returned at the start and conclusion of each act. This night, the conductor was also the composer – John Adams. And the opera was Nixon in China.
Nixon in China arrived at the Metropolitan Opera this month, nearly a quarter century after its premiere at the Houston Opera in 1987. It took a long time to get to the Met, but this groundbreaking American opera is finally where it belongs, at the country’s premier opera house.
Much has been said, pro and con, about this work, but there’s no doubt that it’s important – a 20th century American opera still being performed almost 25 years after its premiere. And, as its run at the Met concludes, there really is little doubt that Nixon in China is, in its own way, superb. It offers ravishing modern music, combined with old-style spectacle, color, history, pageantry, thrilling dancing, humor and an affecting look into the imagined personal thoughts of the famous.
All of those were on view on the Met stage, combined with expert conducting, glowing performances and the wizardry of the top-of-the-line Met orchestra. All that, and the sound of Adams’ fascinating music, combined to light up the Met stage – and when the time came, the Met audience as well.
Peter Sellars, Nixon in China’s original director, who back in 1983 came up with the idea as well as the opera’s title, is making his long overdue Met debut, with a production (first presented at the English National Opera in 2006) that shows this longtime champion of the avant-garde at his most imaginative, his most creative. Baritone James Maddalena, the original Nixon, is also appearing at the Met for the first time. Onstage, he is Nixon – he seemingly captures the essence of the troubled and complex president, in both tone and body movement, with wit, warmth and humanity.
The opera begins at the start of what Nixon himself called “the week that changed the world,” the first visit of an American president to communist China, which opened up relations between two archenemies and led to the global economy in which we live today.
A chorus of Chinese peasants and soldiers, awaiting Nixon’s arrival, sing the glories of their lives under communism (speaking of the Met chorus, it is sterling throughout). The president’s Air Force One, which he called the Spirit of ’76 – seemingly larger than life in its stage incarnation, thanks to designer Adrianne Lobel, whose work is spot-on throughout – descends to the ground. The plane’s door opens; Nixon appears, gives his trademark, instantly recognizable wave to the crowd (and to audience laughter), descends the staircase, and shakes the hand of the Chinese premier, Chou En-lai (the excellent Russell Braun).
It is a handshake that Chou was said to have described as “over the vastest distance in the world, 25 years of no communication.” Soon Nixon will meet Mao Tse-tung (the appropriately dictatorial Robert Brubaker), the supreme leader, the personification of Chinese communism, murder and brutality.
Later in the act, at the official state banquet, as the toasts begin, the house lights come on brightly above the vast Met audience, making the operagoers instantly part of the dinner, guests in the great hall, at one with history. It is a stunning bit of stage magic.
Adams’ music, which has been described as his personal version of minimalism, with touches of Steve Reich and the Philip Glass of Satyagraha and hints, at times more than hints, of 19th century opera, echoes, amplifies the moods of each scene – in turn stirri