Adams: Nixon in China

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Nixon in China
PERFORMER: Robert Orth, Maria Kanyova, Thomas Hammons, Marc Heller, Tracy Dahl, Chen-Ye Yuan, Melissa Malde, Julie Simson, Jennifer DeDominici; Opera Colorado Chorus/Douglas Kinney Frost; Colorado SO/Marin Alsop
CATALOGUE NO: 8.669022


It must bug John Adams that, 22 years after its Houston premiere, the opera that Peter Sellars dubbed ‘a grand divertissement for the Reagan administration’ is still described as his best. Nixon in China is the most conventional of Adams’s operas – an exhilarating confection of history and fantasy, with all the spectacle and cruelty an audience trained on Verdi might expect.

Unusually for a work of the last quarter-century, it has been commercially successful too. Yet this live recording from Marin Alsop and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra is the first to compete with Edo de Waart’s 1988 Nonesuch studio recording.
Nixon is a young man’s opera –loud, louder, loudest.

But Alsop balances rhythmic drive with careful pointers to Adams’s later, more lyrical achievements: the implacable ideological choruses (Klinghoffer), the rhapsodic delicacy of Pat Nixon’s Act II soliloquoy (El Niño), the prideful violence of Madame Mao (A Flowering Tree) and, in the extraordinary dream-sequence of Act III, something of the heavy pathos of Robert Oppenheimer’s aria in Doctor Atomic.

Some orchestral details register less vibrantly than they should, and pity the singer who must follow James Maddalena as Nixon. Here, Robert Orth gives a remarkable sung impression of the president’s speaking voice but lacks the flexibility for Adams’s melismas. Thomas Hammons (Kissinger) is the sole survivor from the original cast, marinaded in realpolitik, while Tracy Dahl (Madame Mao) and Maria Kanyova (Pat) comfortably outshine their boyish predecessors.


If cost is the issue, you know what to do. If it isn’t, buy both. Anna Picard