I HAVE NEW ART, 1 VERTICAL OF DICK ‘N’ PAT, WILL BRING IN [F/L] It would be possible, with a little hard work, to have a terrible time at the Music Center Opera’s “Nixon in China,” but why waste the effort? However you may feel about the particularities of the work — the broad eclecticism of John Adams’ musical style (sometimes repetitive, sometimes abrasive, often romantic) or the liberties Alice Goodman’s text takes with historical characters (some still living) — the fact remains that the sheer energy of the piece, the level of daring in both its music and its text, not to mention Peter Sellars’ marvelously adept staging, and its moments of irresistible beauty add up to a spellbinding experience in contemporary musical theater. Miss it at your peril. You surely know the details by now; “Nixon in China”is, if nothing else, the most famous American opera since “Porgy and Bess.” The opera makes its initial appeal through its abundance of good theatrical fun. That starts right off with the landing of the American plane at the Peking airport (and never mind that wide-bodied aircraft do not make vertical, helicopter-style landings; all opera demands some suspension of belief). It runs on through the tender comedy of poor, bemused Pat Nixon being pushed this way and that through her obligatory guided tour of Peking. It embraces the horrendous/hilarious night at the Chinese ballet (where choreographer Mark Morris has based his work on Madame Mao’s actual jingoistic creation, “The Red Detachment of Women” with its army lads and lassies doing their military maneuvers en pointe). But what really remains in the memory is the opera’s deeper undercurrent, captured in the poetic, wondrously observant libretto and subtly undescored in Adams’ equally observant score: the Nixon-Mao meeting with its tangle of verbal cross-purposes, and the final, surrealistic scene with its counterpoint of self-revelations. You may hear some sneers about the use of supertitles in this English-language opera in which the cast’s diction is fair enough, yet the subtleties of Goodman’s word-choices are worth underscoring in this manner. The opera has made the rounds, since its Houston premiere three years ago, but the cast has remained constant, to its greater glory. Small subtleties abound; James Maddalena’s rightness in the title role, his little twitches of incomprehension in the scene with Mao, his homely, clumsy gestures of affection toward Pat, create a whole character; maybe it isn’t Richard Nixon,maybe it is; it certainly is somebody. And what is true of Maddalena’s work extends through the cast: Carolann Page’s frightened, fluttering Pat, Trudy Ellen Craney’s shrieking, malevolent Madame Mao, Sanford Sylvan’s deep, quiet Chou En-lai. Along the way from the Houston performance (which was also televised), director Sellars has made certain changes, all for the better. His ballet scene now ends in a riot reminiscent of last year’s Tianamen Square tragedy; his last act, which seemed a little bare at Houston, is now nicely filled out with dancing and some added props. And there is Kent Nagano’s conducting of his superb orchestral forces: strong, vivid, finely spirited. “Nixon in China” has fared well on the podium: John DeMain in Houston, Edo de Waart in Brooklyn and on the Nonesuch recording. Nagano is worthy of these predecessors; his role in an altogether enthralling night of genuine, stirring opera is considerable. FACTS: WHAT: The Music Center Opera’s production of John Adams’ and Alice Goodman’s “Nixon in China.” STARRING: James Maddalena as Nixon, with Carolann Page, Trudy Ellen Craney, John Duykers and Sanford Sylvan. BEHIND THE SCENES: Directed by Peter Sellars, with choreography by Mark Morris; conducted by Kent Nagano; designed by Adrianne Lobel and Dunya Ramicova. WHERE: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 No. Grand Ave., in downtown Los Angeles. WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and 9/29; 2 p.m. 9/16 and 10/7. TICKETS: $15 to $80; reservations: 213 480-3232; information: 213 972- 7219.

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