‘Nixon’ makes anticlimactic debut at Met

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‘Nixon’ makes anticlimactic debut at Met

Air Force One finally landed on the stage of the Met - and so did perhaps the greatest American opera of the last quarter-century.

The Metropolitan Opera premiere of composer John Adams’ “Nixon in China” on Wednesday night was both a testament to its enduring power and a demonstration of the company’s willingness to add significant modern works to its repertory of classics.

And a long-overdue premiere it was. “Nixon,” set to a libretto by Alice Goodman that tells of the president’s historic visit to China in 1972, has been produced all over the world since its 1987 debut in Houston. It’s even been presented in New York - but at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, not the Met.

Adams’ score bursts with youthful energy and inventiveness. He uses elements of “minimalism,” the insistent repetition of themes with only slight variation.

But his style is far more varied and sophisticated than any label can convey, and he moves seamlessly from somber choruses and expansive arias to jazzy saxophones and triumphant brass fanfares.

Among the glories of Goodman’s libretto is the dream-like poetic quality with which she imbues all the characters, ennobling them while maintaining their particular visions and quirks.

Her text is a meditation on history, politics and culture, and at the same time a keen dramatization of individuals caught up in a momentous event.

So it’s a shame that there was an air of anticlimax about the performance. Part of that may be the fault of Adams himself, who conducted the orchestra and didn’t always seem able to make the ensemble cohere or stir up the excitement inherent in his own music.

He was at his best in the brilliant third act, in which the principal characters reveal their private thoughts about their past lives.

Then, too, baritone James Maddalena, who created the role of Nixon and has sung it more than 100 times, had severe vocal difficulties, especially in what should be his show-stopping opening aria, “News.” It’s hard to say whether the problems resulted from indisposition or from the fact that in his mid-50’s he can no longer handle the dauntingly high vocal line.

Maddalena, like the other singers, used a wireless microphone to amplify his singing - a requirement specified by Adams for all productions of this work. The amplification only served to highlight the strain in his upper register. AP

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