Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

Richard Strauss: Arabella

I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.

Carmen in Orange

Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Richard Nixon [Source: Wikipedia]
28 Sep 2012

Nixon in China at the BBC Proms

John Adams’s Nixon in China has become one of the most successful operas in the late 20th/early 21st century wave of post-modernist attempts to revitalise the operatic tradition. It has even started its own sub-genre, the so-called CNN opera.

John Adams : NIxon in China

Madame Mao: Kathleen Kim, Chairman Mao: Alan Oke, Chou En-Lai: Gerald Finley, President Nixon: Robert Orth, Pat Nixon: Jessica Rivera, Kissinger: James Rutherford, Secretary: Stephanie Marshall, Secretary: Louise Poole, Secretary: Susan Platts, Stage Director: Paul Curran, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers, Conductor: John Adams

Royal Albert Hall, London 5th September 2012

Above: Richard Nixon [Source: Wikipedia]

 

The opera’s success owes something to Adams’s very personal musical style, with its inspirations from minimalism but with a liking for dramatic juxtapositions and willingness to embraces singable lines and individual characterisation. But the opera also owes a lot to Adams’s collaborators, director Peter Sellers and librettist Alice Goodman. It was Sellers who helped ensure that the opera was dramatically and dramaturgically sound, and Goodman who created the beautifully poetic libretto. One of the great tragedies of contemporary opera is that the furore surrounding The Death of Klinghoffer prevented the three from collaborating again. For the Prom on Wednesday5 September, the BBC had invited John Adams to conduct Nixon in China at the Royal Albert Hall.

Adams conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers with predominantly transatlantic principals. There was a staging of sorts by Paul Curran, with dramatic lighting. But this was an interesting opportunity to hear the work divorced from the iconic Peter Sellers production. The soloists were placed in front of the orchestra and were reliant on TV monitors and a repetiteur placed in the arena for communication with Adams, so not quite ideal circumstances.

Another drawback was that the acoustic intervention, that every Adams event like this has, was less than perfect. All the singers had individual microphones but the projection of each was rather variable; an effect perhaps of the infamous Royal Albert Hall acoustic. The singers used scores, but were certainly not static and Paul Curran managed to create both drama and humour, even the BBC Singers were involved, shouting, waving flags, manipulating a model of ‘The Spirit of 76’ and holding up Mao’s little red book.

Robert Orth as Nixon was new to me, though he was played the role on numerous occasions in the USA and is on the Naxos recording. As a visual and dramatic representation of Richard Nixon he was excellent, giving us a convincing visual simulacrum. Musically, I was less convinced and had rather wished that the BBC had had the courage to employ a singer who did not look like Nixon. In a non-representational semi-staging, all of Orth’s tics and visual mannerisms became wearing. Orth is an experienced singer, very experienced, his career dates back to the 1970’s; quite whether he was the best person for the role I am not sure.

His iconic opening aria was sung well enough, but it was far less than imposing. Without a life size representation of ‘The Spirit of 76’ behind him (we had to make to with a tiny model), he needed much more authority. Without authority and gravitas, there was a danger of Nixon being simply a buffoon. That this could be done was shown but Gerald Finley who managed to imbue every note of Chou En-lai’s statements with authority and commitment, making the role seem far more than it really is. I’d even begun to wonder what Finley might have been like as Nixon.

Where Orth came over well was in the quieter more intimate scenes with Jessica Rivera’s Pat Nixon. US born Rivera has appeared in a number of Adams’s operas, making her European debut in Doctor Atomic with Netherlands Opera. She made a poised, sympathetic Pat Nixon. Singing with a lovely rich toned lyric voice which brought radiance to the more purple passages.

James Rutherford played Kissinger with energy and gravitas but didn’t quite succeed in making complete sense of what is rather a diffuse and diverse role. I think that it is the role of Kissinger that most benefits from a detailed full staging.

Gerald Finley made Chou En-lai the central role of the opera, without appearing to actually do anything. He certainly brought convincing commitment to the rather densely purple philosophising, and was profoundly touching in the final monologue. It was an object lesson in how character can be created in this opera without over doing things.

Alan Oke brought similar commitment, and fearlessness, to Chairman Mao. His delivery of the role, with its high tessitura, was masterly. And he made Mao’s odd philosophical statements seem coherent, bringing real anger at the right moments. The irony of this role is that Adams has given wickedly high music to a character that is ailing (at least in the first act). Oke did not sound ailing, but he looked convincingly so.

Oke was ably supported by Louise Poole, Stephanie Marshall and Susan Platts as the three secretaries. They managed to sing and perform in neat unison and executed all of Curran’s comic moments with wonderful, dead-pan aplomb.

Curran could not manage to disguise the fact that the ballet sequence in act two out-stayed its welcome. Without a dance troop and Mark Morris’s choreography to cheer things up, the lack of real drama began to tell. This satirical sequence, based on one of Madam Mao’s infamous workers ballets has always seemed a saggy part of the opera.

So it was with more than usual relief that we welcomed the appearance of Korean soprano Kathleen Kim as Madam Mao and her stunning delivery of the showpiece aria ‘I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung’. Kim’s command of the coloratura and acuti was impressive. It has to be admitted that her tone seemed a little hard, but then this is in keeping with the character.

The final act would, I think, have benefited from not being staged. As it was Curran’s staging did not match many of the stage directions. And the characters are not really doing anything, I just wanted to be able to sit back and listen.

Bringing the orchestra out of the pit meant that we could appreciate even more the amazing and luminous effects Adams gets with his orchestration, especially as the BBC Symphony Orchestra were on such strong form. Adams seemed to take a moderately steady view of the work, concerned perhaps that everything could be heard clearly. This meant that come of the more dramatic passages lacked the visceral thrill that other conductors bring to them. The timings of Adams’s performance seemed to indicate that he was overall marginally slower than Marin Alsop on the Naxos recording, and Alsop’s speeds are marginally slower than those of Edo de Waart on the premiere recording.

Also, some sequences seemed oddly stilted with gaps between the in a way that I don’t think I have heard before. But then, I’ve never heard the composer conduct the work, nor was I following it with a score.

This was quite a long evening (7pm to 10.30pm with two 20 minute intervals) and there were times when I thought that the piece might benefit from cutting. But it was a pleasure and a privilege to hear Adams conducting his own work.

Robert Hugill

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):