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Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon
15 Feb 2017

A riveting Nixon in China at the Concertgebouw

American composer John Adams turns 70 this year. By way of celebration no less than seven concerts in this season’s NTR ZaterdagMatinee series feature works by Adams, including this concert version of his first opera, Nixon in China.

A riveting Nixon in China at the Concertgebouw

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon


When it premiered in Houston in 1987 the American critics were divided about its merits, but the reception at its European premiere in Amsterdam the following year was unanimously enthusiastic. Adams’s account of Richard Nixon’s 1972 historic visit to the People’s Republic of China, told through the polychrome poetry of librettist Alice Goodman, has since claimed a place in the repertoire. Last Saturday’s performance at the Concertgebouw, led by conductor Kevin John Edusei, did full justice to all its key musical aspects: the tidal tug of its repeated motifs, its rhythmic adroitness and its reflective lyricism.

From the very first bars, Edusei showed a complete trust in the score. He let the iterations of the introduction work their hypnotic effect, without interfering with their dynamics, then turned the volume up suddenly for the deafening landing of the presidential plane in Peking. Adams belongs to the American minimalist movement, but he does not let minimalism cramp his style. Besides minimalist traits such as persistent figures and a pulsating bass, Nixon in China includes references to Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner, sassy big band sounds and a big peppering of percussive jolts inspired by Stravinsky. The orchestration gives saxophones and trombones a prominent role, and includes two pianos and a keyboard sampler. The urgency and eruptions in the orchestra reveal the momentousness of the events being televised live across the world, while the singers repeatedly detach themselves from their public personae to express their inner thoughts. With the sparest of gestures Edusei made the score swish, swirl and bounce, and not just when the Mr. and Mrs. Mao dance the foxtrot.

The National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands, consisting of Conservatory students, gave a professional-quality performance, with a smooth and agile string section at its core. The slightly raw edge in the trumpets and trombones suited the brashness required from the brass. (At one point they imitate grunting pigs.) Percussionist Frank Nelissen was a one-man, beat-perfect combo, playing everything from slapsticks to drums. The chorus, Cappella Amsterdam, delivered their usual youthful, homogeneous sound and they were undaunted by the challenges of the irregular rhythms. The soloists, amplified as prescribed by the score, gave highly involved portrayals. Robin Adams oozed confidence as the statesman Nixon, his baritone secure and his consonants sharp as flint. He also displayed lyrical suppleness and a touch of vulnerability as Nixon the man, ambling down memory lane in conversation with his wife. His diction was crystal-clear, as was Janis Kelly’s in the role of Pat Nixon. Kelly sang with irreproachable operatic technique and the subtleties of a musical actress, every accent and colour sounding natural. Her Pat was a likeable mixture of practicality and feminine warmth.

As Prime Minister Chou En-lai, veteran David Wilson-Johnson compensated for his powdery baritone, at times close to cracking, by twanging out his top notes and infusing every phrase with meaning. Olle Persson sang robustly and with a slight sibilant accent as Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and stage-manager of the Sino-American rapprochement. Persson’s barky baritone also fit the bill when Kissinger doubles as the baddie in Madame Mao’s revolutionary ballet, The Red Detachment of Women, put on for the benefit of the American guests. Dramatic tenor Michael Weinius made a heroic Mao Tse-tung, totally at ease with the wide intervals and high tessitura. Evanna Lai, Iris van Wijnen and Helena Rasker were excellent as his dusky-voiced Secretaries, beautifully blended and sounding slightly sinister. Mao’s wife, Chian Ch’ing, was sung by soprano Yun-Jeong Lee, who thrillingly hit all the high notes in her soapbox aria "I am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung”. In the final act she glided through her soliloquy “I can keep still” with gorgeous elegance.

The ruminative nature of Act III, with its contrast to the eventfulness of the first two acts, can seem anti-climactic. The participants in this extraordinary political episode retire to their bedrooms and reflect on their lives, reminiscing on their past. Adams sends his characters to sleep with a Straussian violin solo as Chou En-lai wonders whether his political decisions were the right ones. In a concert version, it can be hard to keep track of the divergent monologues without the help of visual cues from the stage. It hardly mattered — this top-tier performance stayed musically riveting to the end.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Richard Nixon: Robin Adams, baritone; Pat Nixon: Janis Kelly, soprano; Chou En-lai: David Wilson-Johnson, baritone; Mao Tse-tung: Michael Weinius, tenor; Henry Kissinger: Olle Persson, baritone; Chian Ch’ing: Yun-Jeong Lee, soprano; Nancy T’ang, First Secretary to Mao: Evanna Lai, mezzo-soprano; Second Secretary to Mao: Iris van Wijnen, mezzo-soprano; Third Secretary to Mao: Helena Rasker, alto. Cappella Amsterdam, National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands. Conductor: Kevin John Edusei. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Saturday, 11th February 2017.

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