IF you live in LA long enough, you might come to think you’ve seen John Adams’ iconic opera not once but several times. There are few more talked-about or written about works from the last four or five decades; maybe “Einstein on the Beach” or “Angels in America.” Adams’ music — his violin concerto, “El Nino,” “Naive and Sentimental Music” — gets performed all the time here, especially by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for whom Adams became, not long ago, the 21st century version of court composer. And short bits of the opera — “The Chairman Dances,” for example — are performed from time to time or show up on public radio alongside pieces of his like “A Short Ride on a Fast Machine.”
Somehow, though, I had spent 20 years of pretty incessant opera- and concert-going without even seeing “Nixon in China” in its entirety. Sunday’s semi-staged new production at the Disney Hall, put on by the Phil and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, was a revelation for me and, I think, many others.
I knew some of the music, and know Adams’ style well, but the use of old home-movie style footage of Dick and Pat’s Chinese vacation startled me. Shot by old Nixon hands, it provided an oddly intimate and beautifully mundane look at one of the nation’s most complex and enigmatic leaders.
HERE is the LA Times review of the performance. Richard Ginnell, the critic here, got at the visual side of Pulitzer’s production quite nicely, I think. “Ultimately, the most astonishing thing was how well the films were integrated with Alice Goodman’s libretto, Adams’ music and, to my amazement, the live cast members themselves, he wrote. “For Pat Nixon’s tour in Act II, when the libretto mentioned a pig farm, an elephant or Chinese schoolchildren, found film for each appeared on screen, and that made soprano Joélle Harvey’s soliloquies as Pat more heartfelt.”
Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait another 20 years to see this again. And that the Los Angeles Opera steps up and gives us a fully staged production.
Until then, happy 70th to John Adams, California’s unofficial composer laureate.