When John Adams’ “Nixon in China” premiered in 1987, it was viewed with suspicion and disdain not only because Watergate and the Cultural Revolution had been such recent events but because Minimalism was seen as a populist and naïve overreaction to the kind of academic ghetto that the American composer had fenced himself into, epitomized by Milton Babbitt’s anti-audience essay, “Who Cares if You Listen?” Yes, Philip Glass, the High Priest of the movement had written operas, and one of them, “Satyagraha,” was even heard at Lyric Opera at the time. But whereas Glass kept—and is still keeping—to a stricter form of Minimalism that emphasizes subtly shifting patterns within the repetitions, Adams began using arpeggios as cells or musical gestures that began evolving into larger structures with Wagnerian orchestrations to build dramatic tension and release and allowing an ever-widening palette of dynamics and popular, jazz and world-music idioms. Nowhere has this approach been more effective than in “Nixon,” a work of remarkable originality that is finally getting its Chicago premiere two decades after the fact by Chicago Opera Theater which despite Lyric’s “Towards the 21st Century” decade-long aberration of presenting newer works has always been the more daring of the two companies. But the passage of time has its advantages: the nonmusical and distracting staging of Peter Sellars has been replaced with a Minimalist staging that more aptly reflects the work’s structure by presenting it with pristine and vivid lines, shapes, images, colors and movements that along with first-class singing and orchestral playing provide a truly memorable marriage of music and drama that is not to be missed. (Dennis Polkow).
Thu, Sun/7:30pm. Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)334-7777. $35-$115.