`Nixon in China': stunning opera inspired by historic meeting

The world premi`ere of John Adams's ``Nixon in China'' instantly establishes the composer as a major new voice in opera. It is also a triumph for the Houston Grand Opera, which chose this work as part of the gala trio of productions that have opened the company's first season in its new home, the Wortham Theater Center.

The idea for an opera based on President Richard Nixon's historic trip to mainland China in 1972 was controversial stage director Peter Sellars's. He persuaded Mr. Adams and poet Alice Goodman to try their hands at operatic collaboration for the first time. The results are unexpectedly magnificent - unexpectedly because there is so much room for mishap and miscalculation in a first-effort opera, especially one about such contemporary people and themes.

And then there was the question of whether a composer who began as a so-called minimalist could create something operatic out of a non-melodic musical style based on incessant repetition of static harmonies. But because Adams has been growing over the years, there should have been little doubt.

The composer uses a modest orchestra, operatically speaking - a few strings, trumpets, trombones, winds, percussion, two electronic pianos, and a synthesizer. His orchestrational ear is so acute that climaxes have startling impact, and the quiet moments - particularly the final scene of the opera - are profound and haunting. And though pulsating sounds and rhythms are still part of Adams's musical muse, there is such variety, theatricality, and melody that hardly a mood he wishes to communicate fails to stir the listener.

Miss Goodman's libretto - written mostly in octosyllabic couplets - is perhaps the most linguistically sophisticated to be written in many an age. Her words evoke the characters multi-dimensionally - almost as if we were seeing the public and private person simultaneously. Her handling of various standard operatic forms is impressive.

Out of so many superb sequences, I cite as most unusual the Nixon-Mao meeting. From the opening rumbling chords greeting Mao's lumbering, stiff-legged entrance - supported by three faceless secretarial drones - one tangibly feels the electricity of the situation: arguably the two most powerful men in the world, at opposite poles of the ideological spectrum, meeting for a sharing of ideas. It evokes the mighty Grand Inquisitor/King Philip scene from Verdi's ``Don Carlo.''

The first act flows in one continuous dramatic line: the anticipation, the arrival, the meeting with Chairman Mao Tse-tung, and the electrifying banquet scene in which Nixon's exhilaration leads him to renounce his negative stand on China. Adams uses slashing Messaien-like chords, punctuated by percussion outbursts (even knee-slapping), and the first act concludes exultantly.

The second act is devoted to introspection and surrealism. Pat Nixon, on tour, reminisces and has idealistic fantasies. The Nixons actually step into the ``Red Detachment of Women'' ballet. This leads into ``I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung'' - a terrifying sequence that moves from a sendup of Chinese party jingoism to a deadly outburst of Red Guard mayhem.

The opera closes with an extended adagio, laced with touches of big-band dance music - a hazy, moody extended series of duets and solo moments for the Nixons, the Maos, and Chou En-lai, in which they reveal their deepest thoughts through paradoxical trivialities.

Mr. Sellars's production is magnificent. He manages to create a sense of historical importance, dramatic tension, and tremendous jubilation, while still sowing the seeds of the isolation that will slowly consume the final act. Only the surreal aspect of the ballet lacks preparation; we don't know why the Nixons should suddenly step into it, or why they should not be destroyed, rather than merely vanish, in the sea of revolutionary violence.

Most of the voices proved somewhat small for a large opera house, and body mikes were needed for discrete amplification. And whereas larger voices would have been welcomed, I doubt such singers would have brought the painstaking attention to detail that made the evening so special theatrically.

Top honors opening night went to John Duykers's imposing Mao (how well he coped with the treacherously high-lying vocal part) and James Maddalena's richly faceted Nixon (how good he sounded, and how exceptional his diction). Sanford Sylvan's Chou was the real emotional and intellectual center of this opera - a marvel of histrionic intensity, enunciational clarity, and liquid phrasing. Thomas Hammons did the best he could with the too-buffoonish Henry Kissinger, the one character that seemed more like an afterthought; Trudy Ellen Craney looked the part of Mme.Mao but was vocally miscast; Carolann Page had her share of troubles with Pat Nixon's music, and she sported the least effective costumes.

The Mark Morris choreography for the ballet was sensational, and it was danced impressively.

The chorus performed superbly and John DeMain conducted the orchestra with passionate commitment. Adrianne Lobel's sets were stunning throughout, and James F. Ingalls lighted them brilliantly. Dunya Ramicova's costumes failed only for Pat Nixon.

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