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When Nixon in China had its premiere in Houston back in 1987, many observers registered ecstasy. A few registered ennui. Count this observer among the few. But time has a way of wounding most heels, and John Adams’ opera seemed more interesting, less ponderous when the Met discovered it on Wednesday. True, the chugging ostinatos still inhibit expressivity. Alice Goodman’s poetic libretto falters with sociopolitical historico-philosophical ramblings. The line separating portraiture from caricature is frequently blurred. The ruminative last act remains anticlimactic. And Adams’ insistence on (over)amplifying the voices creates grotesque distortion.
Still, benevolent eyes and ears can savour the originality at work here, the canny adaptation of old-fashioned structures and wry use of quotation. Also, Mark Morris’ balletic persiflage on The Red Detachment of Women provides piquant counterpoint in the banquet scene.
The production remains Peter Sellars’ show, and we do mean show. The erstwhile enfant terrible oversaw the original production, which made its way to the English National Opera in 2000, and the Met imported the Sellars package from London, lock, stock and jet-plane façade. With Adrianne Lobel’s spare sets and Dunya Ramicova’s colour-coded costumes, the drama rose and fell cleverly, stylisation here, quasi-realism there.
Wildly cheered into the pit, Adams conducted with obvious affection if without total mastery. The cast looked terrific, acted with ardour and, thanks to the microphones, sounded pretty awful. James Maddalena, though not in prime vocal condition, portrayed Nixon with the savoir-faire derived from 23 years’ experience in the role. Janis Kelly complemented him as a sympathetic Pat Nixon. Robert Brubaker blustered heroically as Mao, Richard Paul Fink bumbled deftly as Kissinger and Russell Braun exuded mysterious dignity as Chou En-lai. The evening belonged, however, to the high-flying Kathleen Kim, a first-rate Madame Mao. When not hindered by coordination problems, the chorus razzled and the orchestra dazzled. Sometimes minimalism can seem almost maximal.