John Adams’ music for the opera Nixon in China is as lively and as animated as the action taking place on the stage. His score was composed in 1985 as part of a collaboration with opera director Peter Sellars. It is intended as a musical illustration of an event that took place in 1972: President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing to establish relations after 25 years of hostility between China and the US. And yet the music feels inescapably present, and will inevitably carry this impression far into the future. Mr Adams’s jazz-tinged phrases and launching arpeggios spark and flare with emotion and what he himself describes as “the origin of myth”. In the 2011 Metropolitan Opera production, based on Mr Sellars’s 1987 première production, Mr Adams conducts his own score, so that the music is even more urgent, not to mention flawlessly performed by the orchestra.

The music is joined by astonishing visuals, both stationary and mobile, by Mr Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris. Mr Sellars takes full advantage of the depth of the Met stage, so that it swarms with layer upon layer of action (and sometimes insanity). During Act II, the President and Mrs Nixon watch The Red Detachment of Women, a political ballet devised by Mao’s wife. The dancers leap and jaunt across the stage as close-ups of Mrs Nixon and Madame Mao provide the sort of entertainment these videos are best at. Brilliant zoomed shots of Mrs Nixon reveal her nervousness and concern, while similar shots of Madame Mao show her singing along and even pumping her fist in satisfaction. These details could not be observed from a live performance, given the vastness of the opera house. On the other hand, Madame Mao’s fierce aria, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung”, is just as effective on the small screen as live on stage. After sensing Mrs Nixon’s misinterpretation of her ballet, she sings of the Cultural Revolution and her part in it. She is truly fearsome throughout this scene, eventually backed up by the immaculately-costumed and compelling chorus.

Madame Mao, sung by Kathleen Kim, is just one of many forceful and convincing vocalists. As Chairman Mao, Robert Brubaker brings complexity to the role, and Russell Braun, as Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, is exceptionally pensive and well-sung during the final scene. Janis Kelly’s Mrs Nixon is top-notch as well as she sings such lines as “I come from a poor family; I treat each day like Christmas.” James Maddalena, who portrayed Nixon at the 1987 Houston Grand Opera première, has since reprised his pivotal role in countries across the globe, including in this Met production. A long-time collaborator of both Mr Adams and Mr Sellars, Mr Maddalena truly becomes Nixon in this role, fashioning an unexpected dimensionality in a role that could have become a caricature. Indeed, the only caricaturized character is National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink), who comes across as unrealistically bumbling.

Overall, though, Alice Goodman’s libretto is funny without being satirical, philosophical without being dry. Clever, thoughtful lines such as “the three main networks’ colors glow through livid drapes onto the lawn” and “outside this room the chill of grace lies heavy on the morning grass” chug along with the simplicity of Adams’ score. The closing scene, which features the five main characters musing about the past and future, allows the libretto, direction, choreography, and music to coalesce into a single, exquisite unit.