The New York Times Essential Library: Opera

A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Works and the Best Recordings

Anthony Tommasini

Times Books

New York Times Essential Library: Opera, The
1. JOHN ADAMS (b. 1947)
Nixon in China
Alice Goodman, librettist
First performance: Houston Grand Opera, October 22, 1987
Countless operas have originated with a librettist proposing an idea to a composer. But Nixon in China has got to be one of few operas that began as the idea of a director. In 1983 Peter Sellars approached the composer John Adams with the notion of creating an opera about President Nixon's breakthrough visit to China in February 1972. Adams, who was reared in a liberal Democratic household in New Hampshire and remains proud to have cast his first vote for the anti Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy in the Democratic primary of 1968, the year of Nixon's election, was resistant at first. By the early 1980s, Adams felt, Richard Nixon had become easy fodder for humorists and a focal point for legitimate national outrage.
But, as Adams has written, after the poet Alice Goodman signed on to the project, proposing to write a libretto in rhymed couplets, the opera took on a wonderfully complex guise, "part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical and even gender issues."
The opera examines an event that was an audacious exercise in the manipulation of public opinion as practiced by two masters: Nixon and Chairman Mao. That the meeting took place at all was the point, and the opera reflects this. Not much else happens. It begins with the ceremonial arrival in Beijing of Air Force One, a "coup de theatre," as Adams puts it, "worthy of Aida," with pulsing, brassy music at once exultant and garish, complete with a sly quote of the magic sword motif from Wagner's Ring. As the scene continues, Adams and Goodman reveal the subtext of the encounter in ways that only opera can.
Next we witness the formal meeting of Nixon, Mao, Chou, and Henry Kissinger (the one portrayal that slips into oafish caricature, though many would say that Kissinger deserved it). That the Chinese are investing this encounter with a genuine philosophical import that eludes the Americans is palpably suggested by the awkward interchanges of views expressed and the contrasting takes on the concept of revolution and contemporary history. Act 1 ends with a grand banquet scene, though relentlessly insistent rhythm patterns in the orchestra and overly forced choral exhortations convey the personal tensions and political posturing that are really at play.
For many, the most crucial scene in the opera comes in act 2 when Pat Nixon is given a tour of a commune and the Summer Palace. She is presented as the embodiment of the political wife, who has embraced family values and her husband's causes, having long ago learned to shield her insecurity and depression behind a stoic smile. Yet in a long, affecting aria she conveys genuine fragility and essential decency. You identify with her bafflement about the world. "This is prophetic!" she sings as she pauses before the Gate of Longevity and Good Will. "I foresee a time will come when luxury dissolves into the atmosphere like a perfume, and ev'rywhere the simple virtues root and branch and leaf and flower."
At the end of the opera the five principals are seen in the loneliness of their separate beds, each confronting personal regrets and reflecting on opportunities lost. "How much of what we did was good?" asks Chou En-lai.
When Nixon in China received its 1987 premiere at the Houston Grand Opera, some critics and opera buffs found Adams's score, with its long stretches of repetitive riffs, lacking in purely musical interest. This was an opera conceived by a director. It seemed to some that music took a backseat, like a score to a film.
But beneath the rippling minimalist surface of Adams's music there are rhythmic and contrapuntal intricacies to savor, as well as wry and ingenious evocations of everything from Richard Wagner to Glenn Miller. And the penetrating characterizations stay with you, especially as performed by the original cast members, who recorded the work in 1990 with Edo de Waart conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke's. The baritone James Maddalena captures the jerky speech patternsand uptightness of Richard Nixon, while still managing to sing with robust vocalism. The baritone Sanford Sylvan as Chou En-lai, the bass-baritone Thomas Hammons as Henry Kissinger, tenor John Duykers as Mao, and the soprano Carolann Page as Pat Nixon are all excellent. You can tell how much they admire Adams's music and Goodman's words from the involvement they project and the clarity of their diction.
Nonesuch (three CDs) 79177
Edo de Waart (conductor), Orchestra of St. Luke's; Maddalena, Page, Sylvan, Hammons, Duykers
Copyright © 2004 by The New York Times Company