John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Nixon in China – an opera in three acts (1987) [154:53]
Richard Nixon: - Robert Orth
Pat Nixon: - Maria Kanyova
Henry Kissinger: - Thomas Hammons
Mao Tse-tung: - Marc Heller
Madame Mao (Chiang Ch’ing) - Tracy Dahl
Cou En-lai - Chen-Ye Yuan
First Secretary (Nancy T’ang) - Melissa Malde
Second Secretary - Julie Simson
Third Secretary - Jennifer DeDominici
Opera Colorado Chorus/Douglas Kinney Frost
Colorado Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. live, Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver, Colorado, 6-14 June 2008. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN OPERA CLASSICS 8.669022-24 [3 CDs: 66:22 + 51:04 + 36:27]
Released in late October 2009, this is the second commercially available recording of John Adams’s important opera Nixon in China, and it stands well alongside the premiere CD from Nonesuch, with Edo de Waart conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. This new release is based on a production of the opera given in Denver, Colorado in June 2009, and stands as testimony to the durability of Adams’s score. Alsop’s is a fine interpretation allowing the sung text to emerge readily throughout the performance. Except for Thomas Hammons, who created the role of Henry Kissinger and may be heard on the existing recording, the entire cast is new to the work, and their performances convey their own engagement in this modern Zeitoper.
As an historic event, the late President Nixon’s visit to China broke down one of the longstanding Cold War barriers. As public as this event was, the genre of opera is useful in bringing out some of the cultural dimensions of this momentous occasion. This is clear in Alice Goodman’s libretto, which offers Adams many opportunities to reinforce the various points she makes in her text. The full libretto is published in the booklet that accompanies the recording, along with synopses of the action for each of the acts. At times, the repetition of the text itself suffices, with this basic element of minimalism serving the dramatic purpose to great effect. For example, the repeated phrases of the number “News has a kind of mystery” is effective in bringing out the full import of the libretto at this point, and Robert Orth delivers it well. It is, after all, the accompaniment which makes the point of the exchange between Nixon and Mao about the latter’s preference for right-wing politics. In other places, Adams uses instrumental numbers well to convey aspects of the libretto uniquely, as in the depiction of the flight of Nixon’s jet, the Spirit of ’76. Here Alsop is good to bring out the interpretation of a plane without resort to sound effects or otherwise exaggerating the repeated patterns that create the impression of turbines. This passage in Nixon in China is comparable to Honegger’s Pacific 231 in its evocation of machinery.
While much of Nixon in China is declamatory, Adams’s accompaniment helps to bring out elements through the shifting colors of the orchestra or in various kinds of motivic gestures, as with the trombones that accompany the passages about the rats in the sheets (in the first act). Alsop balances the vocal lines and accompaniment effectively, and this is accentuated by the excellent sonics of the Naxos recording, in which these details can be heard easily. When required in the score, Alsop shifts tempos in a facile way, and they are apparent in the vibrant sound represented well in the recording. This is particularly apparent with the chorus, which has a nice presence in the overall concept of this performance. While various places could be cited, the final scene of the first act is notable for the deft intersection of chorus and principals, a place where Alsop brings out the dramatic elements of the chorus, soloists, and orchestra as the action comes to a point of repose.
The second act opens with an extended scene involving Pat Nixon, and in this role Maria Kanyova creates a strong impression. Her diction and phrasing make the character come to life, and the resulting clarity precludes the need to refer to a libretto to follow the text. A similar effect occurs in the second scene of that act, with the chorus of three secretaries performing in tight ensemble. Their sense of unity is akin to that of a single performer, as Adams intended, and their scene succeeds for various reasons, including the strong performances the three performers brought to this part of the opera. In this scene Thomas Hammons reprises the role of Henry Kissinger that he created on the premiere recording. His inflections and ease in the part emerge nicely. Likewise, Tracy Dahl as Madame Mao is effective in her solo number at the end of the act in which she explains her character’s motivation. As with the first act, Alsop builds the tension satisfactorily – this is evident, too, in the applause which is part of the recording and also adds to its appeal.
Alsop’s sensitivity is particularly noticeably at the beginning of the third act, in which the more delicate dynamic levels may be heard in conjunction with the sometimes abrupt shifts in the rhythmic patterns just before the entrance of the character of Richard Nixon. Such details include the fluid coloratura of Kanyova in her scene with Robert Orth, a moment in the opera which demonstrates Adams’s effective vocal writing. These and the other principals work well together to bring Nixon in China to its conclusion. Some of the ideas are now familiar to audiences who have heard Adams’s other music, including his recent opera Doctor Atomic, which has some similar passages of vocal beauty. Yet Adams is hardly formulaic as a composer, and the individual style and appeal of Nixon in China is evident in this performance of this major work of the late twentieth century. The elegiac quality of the Finale remains one of its memorable moments, and this recording provides a moving reading of that important scene.
All in all, this second recording of John Adams’ Nixon in China has much to offer, and the interpretation of the work by Marin Alsop points to the durability of this score among other strong modern operas. The performance in this new recording is worth hearing; those already familiar with Nixon in China may wish to hear this performance, while anyone who has not yet heard the piece can find much to offer here. The convincing performance is supported by the excellent sound in a recording which is affordably priced and easy to obtain. The inclusion of the full text of the opera is another welcome part of this Naxos set.

Jim Zychowicz
A convincing performance in excellent sound, affordably priced, easy to obtain … see Full Review