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Resonating from the Great Wall: ‘Nixon in China’ plays the Met

The synopsis of the quirky opera tracks history closely, but the creators imparted an imaginative, even mythic, dimension to their characters’ meditations

By Matthew Gurewitsch  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

The date was April 15, 1988, and the television critic Marvin Kitman was quoting Walter Cronkite, the anchor, who was quoting Andre Malraux, the French adventurer, statesman and thinker. When then-US president Richard Nixon electrified the world by visiting the vast, mysterious communist bastion of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) China in 1972, Malraux said it would take 50 years to sort out what had happened there.

The same was true, Kitman suggested, of the opera Nixon in China, a collaboration of the intellectual gadfly and director Peter Sellars, who came up with the idea; the first-time opera composer John Adams; and the poet and first-time librettist Alice Goodman. The opera was being broadcast that night on PBS’ Great Performances series — Cronkite, who had accompanied Nixon to China, was the guest host.

Undaunted, Kitman leapt in with his instant assessment.

“There are only three things wrong with Nixon in China,” he said. “One, the libretto; two, the music; three, the direction. Outside of that, it’s perfect.”

Re-enacting one historic media circus, Nixon in China set off another. The premiere took place in 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera, where it was also filmed. In the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein called Nixon in China “an operatic triumph of grave and thought-provoking beauty.”

In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Mark Swed wrote that it would “bear relevance for as long as mankind cherished humanity.”

The naysayers were equally emphatic.

Peter Davis of New York magazine declared that “Adams fails to do the job.”

The chief music critic of the New York Times, Donal Henahan, opened his review with the question “That was it?” He characterized the production as “a Peter Sellars variety show, worth a few giggles, but hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory” and “fluff.”

Well, the latest version of the well-traveled original production (which appeared early on at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) alights at the Metropolitan Opera in New York tonight, affording the ubiquitous Sellars a tardy house debut. Adams, who had a hit at the Met with Doctor Atomic in 2008, will conduct there for the first time. The production is scheduled for high-definition broadcast to movie theaters on Feb. 12.

Concurrently, beginning on Wednesday next week, the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto will present the opera in a stylish abstract staging by James Robinson, originally mounted by the Opera Theater of St Louis in 2004. A handful of shorter-lived productions have been mounted around the world, though none in China.

Adams first conducted Nixon in China at the British premiere in 1988 and has returned to it often, though not for some time.

“Don’t misquote me, or you’ll make me sound self-congratulatory, but when I look at it now, I’m amazed that I wrote it,” he said, before heading off to a rehearsal at the Met last month. “I had never attempted anything on this scale before, never written for the solo voice. I’m astonished that the opera turned out as well as it did and there’s Alice’s work as well.”

Having set the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson in his choral fresco Harmonium, Adams insisted on finding a librettist whose literary voice would be both powerful and distinctive. When Sellars, who knew Goodman from their student days at Harvard, made the introductions, she had just one poem to show. Yet the match was made.

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