Nixon in China

John Adams, Libretto by Alice Goodman
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon and James Maddalena as Richard Nixon Credit: Ken Howard
James Maddalena as Richard Nixon and Russell Braun as Chou En-Lai. On the right is Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon and Richard Paul Fink as Henry Kissinger Credit: Ken Howard
James Maddalena and Janis Kelly as Richard and Pat Nixon Credit: Ken Howard

For the most part, the Met’s wonderful On Demand series of free videos has justifiably concentrated on classics from the operatic canon. However, there has been the odd appearance from those that are already making claims to be oxymoronic 'modern classics' and will almost certainly be enjoyed for decades to come.

Alongside fellow minimalist Philip Glass, John Adams is in the vanguard of this movement and his magnum opus in 1987, Nixon in China, makes a strong case for opera as a vibrant living art form, taking a moment from recent history and orchestrating it to great dramatic and musical effect. Indeed in his introduction, with good reason, Thomas Hampson describes this opera as the greatest of the previous quarter-century.

It also helped to have had a fantastic creative team behind the original production, recreated here in its long-awaited Met première 24 years later, led by director Peter Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris, while Adams conducts the orchestra himself. Alice Goodman’s libretto manages to combine an incredible amount of information and drama with unexpected wit, perhaps acting as a precursor to Hamilton, although to a very different musical accompaniment.

Almost 50 years ago, on February 21, 1972, after much behind-the-scenes diplomacy on both sides, American President Richard Nixon made a historic flight to communist China in an attempt to broker peace and establish his own political legacy. In hindsight, the resulting rapprochement should have achieved that goal but his reputation was irretrievably blighted by the scandal over Watergate.

Nevertheless, this was a ground-breaking trip seeking “peace for all mankind”, the consequences of which have benefited both countries and the world more widely ever since—until growing antagonism in recent months.

Nixon is memorably played by baritone James Maddalena, who created the title role in his early 30s and then made it his own for decades, effortlessly combining the magisterial with the personal. His arrival, along with Scottish soprano Janis Kelly’s Pat, is a great coup de théàtre as their plane, The Spirit of 76, flies in and they make a historic descent into the previously forbidden land.

Nixon’s handshake with Russell Braun as Chinese counterpart Premier Chou En-Lai while “the whole world was listening” emphasises the importance to global diplomacy of this historic adventure, as does his meeting with the doddering leader emeritus, Chairman Mao, played by Robert Brubaker.

Remarkably, the creative team manages to simplify and explain a series of delicate diplomatic negotiations that are helped along the way by the efforts of Richard Paul Fink playing 'the philosopher', Henry Kissinger.

Beyond the politicking, there is also a glimpse of normal life, as Pat Nixon visits the regimented people, all on their best behaviour in a school, factory and on a farm. She is a kind soul, very different from Kathleen Kim’s tyrannical, Little Red Book wielding Madam Mao, a coloratura soprano who excels with her unforgettable, pained vibrato.

Light relief also comes in Mark Morris’s lengthy ballet, featuring a lustful, diabolical Kissinger.

A performance that lasts around 2¾ hours rarely flags with a strong storyline, excellent singing from leads and chorus accompanying a well-drilled audience and great visual effects. This is undoubtedly one of the highlights of a greatly appreciated programme from the Met.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher