It’s hard to believe that “Nixon in China,” John Adams and Alice Goodman’s four-hour opera inspired by Richard Nixon’s diplomatic trip to China in 1972, is only now making its Metropolitan Opera debut — about 25 years after it first premiered in Houston.
It has since become one of the most admired American operas. Fittingly enough, Peter Sellars’ production essentially re-creates the original staging, complete with Mark Morris’ dance choreography. James Maddalena, who originated the role of Nixon, is still playing the president.
It begins with Nixon and Henry Kissinger stepping out of the “Spirit of ‘76” and onto an airport runway outside Peking (these days Beijing) to greet some grim-looking Communist officials. After a confusing and unproductive meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong, Nixon tries to make peaceful overtures at a formal dinner. Meanwhile, Pat Nixon visits ordinary workers at a glass factory and pig farm.
Most of the opera consists of idle introspection from each character. The dramatic high point occurs when the president and first lady watch a Communist propaganda ballet penned by Mao’s wife. They slowly begin to interact and take sides with the characters. Interestingly enough, the ballet’s villain resembles Kissinger.
The minimalistic score — conducted by Adams himself — consists of forceful rhythms pounded against loud brass. Unlike other Met productions, the singers are miked in order to be heard over the orchestra.
Maddalena now sounds shaky in the lead role and the opera has lost much of its shock value, but Sellars’ production is a triumph of American opera. Even Tricia Nixon Cox, who was in the audience on opening night, gave a standing ovation.
“Nixon in China” plays at the Metropolitan Opera through Feb. 19. Lincoln Center Plaza, 212-362-6000