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Nixon in China at the Met

I first saw John Adams’ Nixon in China at BAM in 1987, weeks after my son was born. The opera was as brand-new as Bernie. I connected with its breathless exhilaration – the Nixons’ discovery of a new world, of new realms of feeling, of new purpose and possibility. I was not alone. At that New York premiere, you didn’t have to be a first-time father to know that something important was happening: of all things, an American opera that gripped and held.
I really didn’t know what to expect, re-encountering Nixon at the Metropolitan Opera this season. Incredibly, 23 years have passed. That’s an easy calculation: Bernie is now 23 years old. How had Nixon aged? Would its style and subject matter seem ephemeral? How would it suit the venerable Met, where it had never before been mounted?
The production, by Peter Sellars, was mainly the same one I saw in Brooklyn. Mark Morris was again the choreographer. James Maddalena was again an indelible Nixon. The landing of the President’s “Spirit of ’76” was not a surprise Sellars coup, as in 1987, but expectation and renewed memory conjoined to tingle the spine. I discovered that I still adore Pat’s second act aria, and Morris’s sly version of “The Red Detachment of Women.”
But I wasn’t prepared for the impact of the opera’s short final act, in which the Nixons, Mao, and Chou En-Lai, taking stock of newly historic events, re-inhabit their respective journeys through life. This unexpected elegiac close — in which the Met orchestra surpassed itself in the demanding solo ascents of the opera’s serene final measures — now attains for me a beautifully calibrated gravitas. It attains closure.
As at Adams’ Dr. Atomic last season, Nixon brought to the Met an exceptionally serious audience. There was no coughing. The ovations that greeted the composer (who also conducted) expressed appreciation, gratitude, and pride. And Adams, I thought, exuded those same sentiments when he took his last bows.
I left the house secure in the knowledge that Nixon in China had aged gracefully – and that I, gracefully or not, had aged with it.
Kudos to Peter Gelb and the Met for keeping the faith.

an ArtsJournal blog