GALA OPERA PREMIERE : John Adams’ ‘Nixon in China’ in Houston

Times Music Critic

If one may judge on the basis of who was there in that dressy capacity crowd and, more important, who would have wanted to be there, the center of the operatic universe Thursday night wasn’t the Met, La Scala, Covent Garden or the Vienna Staatsoper. It certainly wasn’t the Bolshoi, the Kirov or the venerable Peking Opera.

Try the sprawling, glitzy, new yet stubbornly old-fashioned opera house in revitalized downtown Houston--the Wortham Center.

Here, amid massive intermission buzzing and polite performance applause, push-button advocates of New Wave chic (probably not to be confused with New Wave chicanery) got their first look at John Adams’ quasi-documentary popera, “Nixon in China.”


They had gotten their first hearing, after a fashion, at an official “concert preview” held in San Francisco last May. But that sketchy event stripped the lush, sugarcoated minimalism of Adams’ orchestral score to the thumps of two pianos augmented by electronic keyboard.

One could grasp the dauntlessly repetitive, potentially lofty outlines of the recycled-romantic music, not to mention the subtle civility of Alice Goodman’s couplet-dominated libretto. Still, one longed for an enriched musical fabric, not to mention theatrical elaboration.

Houston was generous with both. Peter Sellars, the incipient Wunderkind director of the Los Angeles Festival who had conceived the piece back in 1984, was brought here to defend it, to illustrate it, and to concoct a bold, fanciful staging apparatus in conjunction with the designers Andrianne Lobel and Dunya Ramicova. He also quickened creative pulses at the last minute by second-guessing--i.e. contradicting--certain climactic portions of the libretto.

Mark Morris, the trendy enfant terrible of modern dance, was drafted to ornament the opera--after his cheeky fashion--with one of those classical yet militaristic Sino-Soviet ballets from the revolutionary repertory of Mme. Mao. In this mild flight of expressionistic diversion, the Nixons somehow get personally entangled in the plight of the “Red Detachment of Women,” and Henry Kissinger portrays the sado-imperialist landowner.

The youthful cast was hand-picked from Sellars’ special roster of always dedicated, sometimes inspired acting-singers. Discreetly outfitted with body microphones, they served the young master deftly.

The chorus, prepared by Conoley Ballard, sang with massive force and crisp articulation. It also acted out Sellars’ charades with stoic restraint.

The conductor, John DeMain, mastered the mechanical doo-dah-doo-dah marathons, the endless ostinato orgies, the repetitive metric complexities and the collage of instrumental gurgles with unflagging energy. He also attended with appreciative point, wherever possible, to the superimposed flights of emotive cliche.

Everyone tried very hard. God, how they tried. But. . . .

For some iconoclasts, “Nixon” the opera--like Nixon the man--remained vexingly shifty, even in this intriguingly decorated and painstakingly prettified incarnation.

The primary problem involved the creators’ stubborn reluctance to take a critical stand vis-a-vis their subject.

“Each character,” Adams has said, “expresses a different point of view.” The observer is not encouraged to snicker at the President’s nervous homilies, at Pat Nixon’s housewifely bathos, at Mao’s pompous nobility or at his wife’s shrill vamping trips. Everyone, we are told, is to be taken at face value, a few little licenses in artistic portraiture notwithstanding.

The days in question, we are reminded, were the glorious hands-across-the-universe days of 1972. Watergate has besmirched no perspective. Although Nixon is depicted as a nice, well-meaning simpleton, Kissinger as a buffoon, Chou En-lai as a poetic visionary and Mme. Mao as an erotic shrew, Adams and Goodman insist they have written “a heroic opera.”

If that is indeed the case, they have written a heroic opera filled with historic obfuscations, soporific piffle, sophomoric twaddle and stylistic contradictions. For all its clever construction and engaging effects, “Nixon in China” seems to confuse satire with humor, accessibility with banality, fashion with convention, longueurs with profundity.

The construction of the work is essentially conventional. Adams’ 33-piece orchestra, dominated by winds and lazily augmented by synthesizer, provides more color, more dynamic variety, more expressive stress than could be predicted after the skeletal San Francisco premiere.

One can savor the bombastic Wagnerian references (not all of them intentional, one surmises) as they mingle with eine kleine Glen Miller musik . One can marvel at a creative mind that wants to replay the “Rheingold” prelude for three hours while savoring syncopated detours.

One can savor lots of pretty sonorities, smile at the triadic back-up refrains assigned three unsmiling, omnipresent Maoettes. One can applaud the absence of melodic chinoiserie . One can recognize, with affection, the operatic typecasting and the appropriation of set pieces, both traditions carefully distorted in the name of modernism.

One can register surprise at the hyper-extended reflective endings of each act that provide a quizzical sigh just when one expects a climactic bang.

Still, “Nixon” spends much of the time treading water. Worse, it spends most of the time cloaking the trite in spiffy pretension.

Sellars’ remarkably static staging is always picturesque and, usually, dramatically apt. He gives us a marvelous coup de theatre with the on-stage arrival of the presidential jet (when Nixon steps down the gangway, he elicits applause from the Houstonians as well as the mock-Chinese welcoming committee). Sellars allows Mao Tse-tung to make an equally striking entrance in the final scene, through a door spanning the mouth and nose in his own bigger-than-life portrait.

Curiously, however, the director moved the final scene from the great banquet room--where the Nixons and the Maos are supposed to do some mutual observing and contemplative waltzing--to a strange communal bedroom--where the troubled protagonists like to chat, to sleep and, perchance, to dream of Mark Morris dancers.

The superb cast included baritone James Maddalena as the earnest and nervous Nixon; Carolann Page as his chronically demure First Lady; John Duykers as the inscrutably Heldentenoral Mao; Trudy Ellen Craney as a Mme. Mao obviously related to the Queen of the Night (and here deprived of her Oedipal expletive in the final scene); Sanford Sylvan as an introspective Chou En-lai who soliloquizes in a Brittenesque baritone, and Thomas Hammons as the puffy new Kissinger.

Heather Toma and Steven Choa tippytoed and swaggered quaintly through the balletic divertissements.

The soon-to-be-televised opera, not incidentally, is being co-sponsored by the Brooklyn Academy, the Kennedy Center in Washington, the Netherlands Opera and--surprise--the Music Center Opera. “Nixon” should reach the land of the plastic lotus by 1989, just in time for Sellars’ first festive fling.