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'Nixon' in Colorado: Where's Sellars?

November 24, 2009 | 12:30 pm

“On that summer day of our first meeting in 1983 Peter … wasted little time in proposing that we collaborate on making an opera,” John Adams writes of Peter Sellars in his memoir, “Hallelujah Junction.” “He even knew what to call it: ‘Nixon in China.’”

The poet Alice Goodman recounts in her notes to the original 1987 Nonesuch recording of the opera that Sellars then called her up and asked her write the libretto. It was the first opera for composer and librettist, and Sellars not only served as midwife but also helped shape the work. He was conciliator in the stormy relationship between Adams and Goodman. He directed the first production in Houston, which has since traveled wide and far.
After more than two decades, there is a new recording for what is increasingly being understood to be an American classic. Marin Alsop conducted a punchy live performance given last year at Colorado Opera.

But where’s Peter?

No mention of Sellars is anywhere to be found on the Naxos three-CD set, as if Denver were the new China, where an inconvenient artist might be “disappeared” Soviet-style.

Sellars The reason is not hard to understand. The notes in the CD booklet are by Gregory Carpenter, Opera Colorado’s general director. He succeeded James Robinson, whose production of “Nixon” in Denver was the occasion for this performance. It was, Carpenter writes, a “ground-breaking production” and its “effect on the audience was one of nostalgia and revelation.”

I’ll give him nostalgia, given that Robinson’s cliché-ridden production incorporates ‘70s TVs and Chinese take-out. But watching a cutesy, ham-fisted attempt at literalism from a fanciful opera proved hardly revelatory when I saw this production five years ago in St. Louis.

Fortunately, Carpenter’s self-serving rewriting of history isn’t likely to have much effect. Sellars' production is, after 22 years, still with us. Crowds flocked to it, and critics celebrated it, when staged in London a couple of seasons ago. And long last, the Met will mount Sellars' production next season, with Adams on the podium.

Meanwhile, new takes on “Nixon” are on the even nearer horizon. In March, new productions of Adams’ opera will be seen in Long Beach and Vancouver.

As for the new recording, the performance is straightforward, decently sung, properly American sounding. But the original cast on the Nonesuch set has an eloquence not since matched, with terrific packaging and Michael Steinberg’s program notes, which really are a revelation.

-- Mark Swed

Top photo: Air Force One lands in Peter Sellars' original 1987 Houston Grand Opera production of "Nixon in China." Credit: Patty Wood/For The Times. Bottom: Sellars in New York in October. Credit: Amy Sussman/Getty Images.