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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

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