The interesting thing about "Nixon in China" is that, in spite of its subject matter being historical, it is not an historical opera. Both John Adams, the composer, and Alice Goodman, its librettist, described it as an heroic opera. The aim was to find a new mythology for a modern generation: in Adams' terms, most people have to learn who Odysseus was from books, but speak of Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin or Richard Nixon and everyone knows who you are talking about -- and these names have faces and personalities ready-attached.
The aim of the opera seems to have been to take an event -- Richard Nixon's (remarkable) visit to China in 1972, and to present it as a human drama. I think it succeeds in this very well. We see a rarely glimpsed sympathetic side to Nixon, particularly in dialogue with his wife Pat, herself a key player in the opera, seeming to represent Nixon's idealism. Mao-Tse-Tung is enigmatic, but again, we see a side of him not usually seen in the West -- less of the noble statesman and more of the man-in-the-street. Kissinger is a delightful (though rather sinister) buffoon, and Chiang Ch'ing (madame Mao) is formidable and terrifying (much as she was in the "cultural revolution" then in progress).
For me, though, the most interesting character is Chou-En-Lai, the premier. More taciturn than Mao, yet still powerful, he is a perfect gentleman with a sinister side, even to himself. It is this self-doubt and self-examination which, to me, makes him so fascinating.
As far as I know this is the first and only recording of the work, and although mostly excellent I think some of the changes of time-signature are not handled completely smoothly. This will no doubt be rectified in later recordings.
I would reccomend this to anyone who enjoys the exciting and the new in music.