Adams: Nixon In China / Orth, DeDominici, Alsop, Colorado Symphony

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"She leads the score with grand sweep and understanding, and her Colorado forces bring out its colors vividly; moreover, she inspires her cast to sing as if they're having a great time with this no-longer-new but still odd opera."

Nonesuch's 1987 recording of this opera, produced when the work was new, was revelatory. Though clearly a piece of mimimalism, it did not rely only on endless repetition; indeed, Adams' musical language was varied enough to make Nixon in China a fascinating opera despite very little action and a somewhat unrevealing text by Alice Goodman. The Nixons and the events of the 1972 visit came across as oddly shallow. It's clear now that that was the point: Nixon's first-act rant, "News has a kind of mystery", is much the key to the opera.

It also seems wittier and more purposefully ironic now, with Kissinger's villainy almost overshadowed by his ladykilling; Pat Nixon's innocence almost charming (we've seen worse since); Madame Mao's berserk aria even more pointedly wacky and funny; and the contrast between Chou En-lai's philosophizing and Richard Nixon's simplemindedness clearer than ever. During the toasts in the third scene of the first act, Chou's toast, an eloquent paean to the future ("Our children race downhill unflustered into peace..."), is accompanied by even arpeggios; when Nixon's clichés take over ("a vote of thanks to one and all who made this possible"), we're jarred into paying attention to his mundanity by disconnected, disparate tones. It's masterly.

Each scene in the first act still strikes me as a few minutes too long, but Act 2, particularly with the spectacular and varied music for the surreal opera performance, is riveting. The frustrating last act is oblique in its dramatic thrust (it features personal reflections from all of the characters except, tellingly, Kissinger), but it is food for thought even if it is a dramatic anti-climax. It's a strange, quiet way to end an opera--but take it for what it is.

This new recording, taken from a live performance at Denver's Ellie Caulkins Opera House in June, 2008, is brilliant. It is sonically way ahead of the Nonesuch (which was recorded at a very low level), thus making it possible to understand almost every word, and Marin Alsop's tempos are slightly slower than Edo de Waart's, which also helps comprehension. She leads the score with grand sweep and understanding, and her Colorado forces bring out its colors vividly; moreover, she inspires her cast to sing as if they're having a great time with this no-longer-new but still odd opera.

Robert Orth's Nixon has just the right amount of self-parody that "playing" Nixon requires--the distance between 1987 and now is very long and we can sense ironies from our vantage point that we were blind to then. Maria Kanyova's Pat also seems more sympathetic while remaining as publicly simple as she always was, and Kanyova's voice and diction are splendid. Marc Heller handles Mao's high tessitura, sometimes bordering on madness, with great character and flavor. Chen-Ye Yuan's Chou is beautifully sung and he captures both the character's joylessness and intelligence. Thomas Hammons (also on the Nonesuch recording) uses his dark, growling bass to show us everything we need to know about the cynical Kissinger, and Tracy Dahl, as Madame Mao, is pretty frightening, even while delivering her Queen of the Night-like aria.

There's not much to decide between this set and the Nonesuch, which is still available. As mentioned, this new one is sonically superior (and cheaper), but otherwise it's pretty much a tie. Naxos, like Nonesuch, supplies a libretto; Nonesuch's booklet has superb essays and a better synopsis.

--Robert Levine, (10/10!)

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8669022-24

  • UPC: 730099902274

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: John Adams

  • Conductor: Marin Alsop

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Colorado Symphony

  • Performer: Chen-Ye Yuan, Jennifer DeDominici, Julie Simson, Maria Kanyova, Mark Heller, Melissa Malde, Robert Orth, Thomas Hammons, Tracy Dahl


  1. Nixon in China

    Composer: John Adams

    Ensemble: Colorado Symphony

    Performer: Tracy Dahl (Voice), Jennifer DeDominici (Voice), Thomas Hammons (Voice), Mark Heller (Voice), Maria Kanyova (Voice), Melissa Malde (Voice), Robert Orth (Voice), Julie Simson (Voice), Chen-Ye Yuan (Voice)

    Conductor: Marin Alsop