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John Adams: Nixon in China
20 May 2011

John Adams: Nixon in China

A quarter century having passed since its premiere, Nixon in China appears to have secured a niche in the opera repertoire, at least of American opera houses.

John Adams: Nixon in China

Richard Nixon: James Maddalena; Pat Nixon: Carolann Page; Chou En-Lai: Sanford Sylvan; Henry Kissinger: Thomas Hammons; Mao Tse-Tung: John Duykers; Madame Mao Tse-Tung: Trudy Ellen Craney. Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Conductor: Edo de Waart.

Nonesuch 79177-2 [3CDs]

$22.99  Click to buy

With music by John Adams to a libretto by Alice Goodman, Nixon in China is unlikely to eclipse La Traviata or even Porgy and Bess in frequency of stagings, but it should no longer be called a rarity. This year the opera made its debut on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, and seemingly for that milestone, Nonesuch has reissued the recording made around the time of the opera's debut.

With the passage of time, both from the original historical events covered by the opera and from the work’s premiere, when it undoubtedly seemed incredibly fresh and risky, Nixon in China might be viewed now as an audience-friendly work. It is in English, with characters, story and setting familiar to most opera goers. There are solo pieces that reward an audience’s patience with the longer passages of Adams’s minimalist scene-setting — especially Madame Mao’s high-flying aria and Nixon’s propulsive number, “News is a kind of mystery.” A ballroom dance sequence has become a fairly popular orchestra showpiece, both on classical radio and in concert programming. A minority of opera-goers might be offended by the libretto’s somewhat snarky tone toward the political figures (especially Henry Kissinger), but the majority probably are quite comfortable with the mixture of ironic detachment and forays into metaphysical poetry:

CHORUS: We saw our parents’ nakedness;
Rivers of blood will be required
To cover them. Rivers of blood.
PAT NIXON: I squeezed your paycheck till it screamed…

The only thing mitigating against even greater popularity for the opera is its length — it is in three acts, with almost three hours of music. The libretto is not exactly action-packed: in act one the American party arrives and is greeted. In act two, they attend some functions, and in the oddly low-key act three, the parties retire to bed and reflect on the experience. Each character seems to be almost autistically isolated from the others. Characters may sing over each other from time to time, but there are no true duets.

The 1987 recording captures a fine orchestra performance by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, with Edo De Waart in full command of the score’s subtle textures and rhythmic complexity. The singers had created their roles and had lived in them for at some time at the point of recording. James Maddelena’s Nixon has a security that was sadly not consistently present when he resumed the role this year at the Metropolitan. Sanford Sylvan sings with dignity as Chou En-Lai, as opposed to Thomas Hammons, who is required to slink into comic caricature as Henry Kissinger. John Duykers’s character tenor voice makes for an interesting choice as Mao-Tse-tung — instead of some gruff, heavy growl, we get a piercing, insistent tone. Carolann Page gets a pensive, but appealing solo number as Pat Nixon, and as Madame Mao, Trudy Ellen Craney fires off some high-lying coloratura.

In the world of opera, 25 years is not really all that long. It could be that Nixon in China is just beginning to assert itself as a key document in American opera history, with regular if not frequent appearances in opera houses for decades to come. Or this could be the high-point of its success, as the historical context slips into an obscure past for younger opera-goers, and the music and staging possible become a bit dated. In this fine Nonesuch recording, however, the best that the opera has to offer is recorded forever.

Chris Mullins

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