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Opera Review

Nixon’s operatic journey East arrives at the Met

Robert Brubaker (seated left) as Mao Tse-tung and James Maddalena (right) as Richard Nixon in ‘‘Nixon in China.’’ Robert Brubaker (seated left) as Mao Tse-tung and James Maddalena (right) as Richard Nixon in ‘‘Nixon in China.’’ (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / February 5, 2011

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NEW YORK — Before they had the music or a libretto, they had a title: “Nixon in China.’’

It had a mythic ring, and the fact that it would be an opera not about gods or kings or distant feudal goings-on but about an iconic political moment within the living memory of most of its original audience — President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China — made it seem just about perfect for their purposes. The composer John Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, and director Peter Sellars set to work. The year was 1985.

On Wednesday night, more than a quarter-century later, “Nixon in China’’ arrived victorious at the Met. In the intervening years, Adams and Sellars have emerged as champions for a vision of modern opera as a lens through which one can refract and reflect on moments of recent American history with the added resonances of music, poetry, choreography, and spectacle. This brand of opera at its best even delivers an empathic, if imagined, glimpse of the inner lives of history’s protagonists precisely at the point that their everyday actions were ascending onto the plane of myth.

Adams’s strongest proof positive of this notion has been his arresting 2005 opera “Doctor Atomic,’’ which provides the eerie sensation of viewing a pivotal moment in US history — the building of the first atomic bomb — simultaneously from the outside-in and the inside-out.

But it was “Nixon,’’ which premiered in 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera and has enjoyed many stagings since then, that was a crucible of their idea of modern opera. Divided into three acts, it roughly follows the outline of Nixon’s actual visit to Beijing, including his fabled meeting with Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Mao’s wife Chiang Ch’ing, the Chinese premier Chou En-lai, Pat Nixon, and Henry Kissinger all appear in the opera, fleshed out to varying degrees. The opera even includes an extended scene in Act II that depicts the Nixons watching a Chinese agitprop ballet, here vividly re-imagined by choreographer Mark Morris.

Adams’s score, which he led incisively on Wednesday in his house conducting debut, is a juggernaut of chugging minimalism, audibly indebted to Philip Glass’s Gandhi opera “Satyagraha’’ but also ingeniously tailored to its own settings and dramatic personae, chief among them Nixon himself, whose character inspired Adams to insert a saxophone-rich swing band sound right into the heart of the minimalist machine. Far from the seething subliminality of “Doctor Atomic,’’ the writing in “Nixon’’ comes across as bright-hued and sometimes strident, an effect Adams later said was inspired by the tone of political art and rhetoric on both sides of the Cold War divide.

The opera’s secret weapon is Goodman’s libretto, which often has the oblique resonance of poetry at the same time as it cannily and sometimes humorously chronicles the characters’ inner states. Pat Nixon memorably sings “I treat every day like Christmas’’ and her husband, after a climactic arrival on Air Force One, sings an inspired “news aria’’ tinged with hubris about the significance of the moment and how it will play at home on primetime television in the American heartland.

None of the characters, except Kissinger, comes across as cartoonish, but this opera at its core is up to something far beyond realistic musical portraiture. It’s about clashing political mythologies, and about how creators of myths themselves become captive to them (Mao at one point enters through a door inside a giant poster-board image of himself). And it’s about the undertow of the personal past on the public narrative of history. In the final scene, Nixon and Pat as well as Mao and his wife, are found ruminating in separate bedrooms. The president is lost in a reverie about his days of naval service in the Pacific. Mao is similarly adrift in memories. The opera ends with Chou alone waxing Sisyphean about the idea of progress: “Everything seems to move beyond/ Our remedy. Come, heal this wound./ At this hour nothing can be done?’’

Wednesday’s cast was strong, with James Maddalena reprising his well-honed portrayal of Nixon, Robert Brubaker as Mao, Janis Kelly as an excellent Pat, Russell Braun as Chou, Richard Paul Fink as Kissinger, and Kathleen Kim as a fearsome Madame Mao. Sellars’s production powerfully frames the work and summons its abstract themes.

No doubt too abstract and hovering for some. The opera, which will be simulcast on Feb. 12, is sure to once again draw strong responses, pro and contra. (“Dull, dissipated’’ is how one reviewer put it in 1988.) Few detractors have been able to explain the work’s staying power — now strong enough to be carrying the opera to another generation of viewers like myself who grew up after Nixon’s presidency was, well, history.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

NIXON IN CHINA Opera by John Adams; libretto by Alice Goodman

At: Metropolitan Opera, Wednesday night (runs through Feb 19 ).

Simulcast to local theaters on Feb 12.