John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Nixon in China - Opera in three acts. Libretto by Alice Goodman (b. 1958) (1987)
Robert Orth (baritone) – Richard Nixon; Maria Kanyova (soprano) – Pat Nixon; Thomas Hammons (bass) – Henry Kissinger; Marc Heller (tenor) – Mao Tse-tung; Tracy Dahl (soprano) – Madame Mao (Chiang Ch’ing); Chen-Ye Yuan (baritone) – Chou En-lai; Melissa Malde (soprano) – 1st Secretary (Nancy T’ang); Julie Simson (mezzo) – 2nd Secretary; Jennifer De Dominici (mezzo) – 3rd Secretary; Opera Colorado Chorus, Colorado Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. live, Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver, Colorado, 6-14 June 2008
NAXOS 8.669022-24 [3 CDs: 66:22 + 51:04 + 36:27]
Few contemporary operas have been as successful as Nixon in China. Adams’s somewhat later The Death of Klinghoffer comes to mind and so do the three ‘portrait operas’ that Philip Glass composed in the early 1980s. Satyagraha, based on Gandhi’s life, is probably the best known of these. What they have in common are the close ties to a human and political reality and in both Adams’ operas the real proceedings were very close in time: only a decade separated Nixon in China from the meeting in Peking. The Klinghoffer murder was even closer than that.
The choice of subject is no doubt one reason for the success and so is the very accessible music in the very special variant of minimalism. The repetitiveness of minimalism can sometimes be tiring but Adams has, particularly in Nixon in China, made it coherent and constantly attractive, melodious and rhythmically alive. The first two acts are truly inspired with ravishing orchestral interludes and some of the best choral music in any opera from the last thirty years or so. The third act is paler, corresponding with the common mood among the tired central characters. One gets the impression that they are drifting apart, speaking past each other and in the ensemble You won at poker (CD 3 tr. 12) the orchestra sounds like a disillusioned Glenn Miller type big band playing the slow and gloomy last dance. Then follows Chou’s final monologue, the touching I am old and I cannot sleep – very beautiful indeed. Here he also expresses his doubts about the Revolution: How much of what we did was good? Chen-Ye Yuan sings with lyrical warmth - a beautiful but gloomy end to the opera.
Earlier on there are highlights galore, the second chorus in the first act, The people are the heroes now (CD 1 tr. 3), with its insistent rhythms and catchy theme, probably being the greatest number in the opera. The following landing of ‘Spirit of ‘76’ is also masterly, graphically illustrating the roaring of the approaching jet airliner. Nixon’s aria News has a kind of mystery (CD 2 tr. 6) is also a masterpiece and Robert Orth is magnificent, enunciation crystal clear. In the second scene Mao’s ensemble with the secretaries is riveting (CD 1 tr. 11) and in Nixon’s monologue that follows, the lines Let us join hands are memorable moments. In the third scene the tension rises continuously from the Nixon’s dialogue (CD 1 tr. 13) through Chou’s and Nixon’s speeches through to the end of the act.
The tension is on a similar level in the second act as well and here the episode of three secretaries Young as we are (CD 2 tr. 5) has a real swing to it. What impresses most of all is the choral music and just as in The Death of Klinghoffer this is music that could have a life of its own for concert performance.
Throughout, the playing of the Colorado Symphony and the singing of the Opera Colorado Chorus is dazzling. Just as in Edo de Waart’s pioneering recording of the original production one has a sense of the deep commitment that comes with familiarity during a lengthy period of rehearsals and performances. The quality of the recording is in both cases extremely fine and there is little to choose between the conducting. A close comparison tells me that Marin Alsop is generally marginally slower, but the impetus in her reading is just as stirring.
Thomas Hammons sang Kissinger for de Waart in 1987 and he has lost little or nothing in intensity during the intervening years. Robert Orth’s portrait of Nixon is deeply penetrating and is even more sharply etched than James Maddalena’s, though the latter’s voice is slightly more sonorous. Maria Kanyova is absolutely superb as Pat Nixon and Marc Heller is nuanced though somewhat guttural as Mao. Tracy Dahl is a bit edgy of tone but characterizes Madame Mao well and I have already praised Chen-Ye Yuan’s Chou En-lai.
As so often it is difficult to pick a clear winner. Both versions are extremely good and whichever one chooses one can rest assured that one gets the best imaginable reading of this fascinating score. Readers who already own Edo de Waart’s recording need not rush to get a replacement but those who have not yet dared to approach Nixon in China should invest in this Naxos issue without further delay. Chances are great that you will get a new unexpected friend for life.
A new unexpected friend for life. ... see Full Review