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GALA OPERA PREMIERE : John Adams' 'Nixon in China' in Houston

October 24, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

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.

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