Opera `Nixon in China' in intimate TV version

Great Performances: `Nixon in China' PBS, tomorrow, 9-11 p.m. (check local listings). Opera with music by John Adams and lyrics by Alice Goodman. Houston Grand Opera production directed by Peter Sellars. Directed for television by Brian Large. The world television premi`ere of John Adams's new opera, ``Nixon in China,'' is in many ways one of the most important and provocative cultural events of the season.

At the premi`ere of the work last October at the Houston Grand Opera, I was not alone in feeling that something magnificent had been born in this superlative production. The story had an epic quality that Adams's musical muse made into a theatrical, provocative, and finally haunting work. Alice Goodman's controlled, imagistically strong way with words made for a powerful and evocative libretto. Peter Sellars's production was magisterial in scale, yet intimate in detail, and at almost all times true to the flavor of the situations as recalled from newsreel footage.

Elements of this are appreciable on the telecast, but the television cameras are unable to capture the dramatic sweep of the staging, focusing instead on the intimate. As a result, a good deal of what made ``Nixon in China'' so special visually in Houston is missing in this version. I am also disturbed by the decision to have Walter Cronkite interrupt between scenes (rather than just between acts) to narrate his recollections of the events he covered in 1972, complete with actual documentary footage. It may help to pinpoint the visual aspects of the production clearly, but it makes the opera seem needlessly disjointed.

The sound quality was poor on my preview tape, but I expect it will be better in the stereo telecast. I hope the program will make Adams's theatrical orchestrations sound as exciting as they were in Houston.

The cast performs handsomely, and it is no discredit to the others to note that Sanford Sylvan emerges as the most effective singing actor as Chou En-Lai.

Though the television version is in some ways disappointing, it documents a very fine performance. And most important, composer Adams's inspiration manages to transcend the limitations.

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