James Maddalena and Janis Kelly
in Nixon in China
(© Ken Howard)
James Maddalena and Janis Kelly
in Nixon in China
(© Ken Howard)
It's taken nearly a quarter century for the John Adams-Alice Goodman historical opera Nixon in China to make a deserved and thrilling bow at the Metropolitan Opera House. Fortunately, this remarkable work has finally arrived there -- in the English National Opera production, directed with all-stops-out gusto by Peter Sellars and featuring the first-rate contributions of choreographer Mark Morris, designer Adrianne Lobel (who has assiduously based the sets on myriad photo-journalists' accounts) and costume designer Dunya Ramicova.

Goodman's narrative focuses on then U.S. President Richard Nixon (James Maddalena) and wife Pat Nixon (Janis Kelly); Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung (Robert Brubaker) and wife Madame Mao (Kathleen Kim), and Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink) and Chou En-lai (Russell Braun), depicting them in both extensively publicized public and private moments.

While regarding her assignment as reportage, Goodman also saw the potential for dark satire, which she maximizes. It's in this area where Nixon in China proves continually compelling if imperfect. Goodman derives genuine comedy, for instance, from the Nixons' attending the Peking Opera. Afflicted with a case of severe culture shock, they become embroiled in the hard-nosed socialist politics of the ballet. By contrast, the introspective third act -- during which the fatigued Nixons and the Maos are observed letting their hair and other things down in separate bedrooms -- remains unconvincing.

Still, there's Adams score -- conducted authoritatively by the composer in his house baton-waving debut. True, his melody-making is minimalist, a seemingly endless series of motifs repeated and subtly tweaked. However, within that construct, he occasionally borrows from Wagner and Strauss as well as from 20th-century popular music. The outcome is a surging sound flow that insists on the unparalleled tension of the five-day event.

The cast, for the most part, is top-of-the-line. The production's one surprising flaw -- at least on opening night -- was Maddalena (who originated the role back in 1987). At the outset, as he descended the stairway from the President's plane and started singing, he sound muffled. (One can't be sure if he was miked -- and if so, was the amplification intended by Sellars to evoke dignitary-arrival ambiance or was it just required to supplement a voice unable to fill the auditorium?) However, he was more effective later on, not least because he managed to infuse his tones with Nixon's recognizable timbre.

Kelly takes command of the entertaining first scene of the second act during which, on Pat's tour of hospitals, grade schools and a pig sty, she waxes soprano-philosophical in "I am prophetic" -- a stretch of music that astutely captures the smiling but lost First Lady that she appeared to be to most people.

In "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung," Kim brashly uses her coloratura to make Madame Mao the steamroller she evidently was; Robert Brubaker has a field day as an infirm Chairman Mao who turns red-hot on his third-act bed of lust; Fink not only offers a blustery Kissinger but does double-duty in Morris' brilliant ballet, where he even dances as a whip-cracking Chinese equivalent to Simon Legree; and Braun's ailing Chou En-lai is especially stentorian and sweet by turns.