ADAMS Nixon in China – de Waart
Nixon in China has appeared amidst a blaze of publicity, and suddenly John Adams is a household name. Created in collaboration with producer Peter Sellars and poet/librettist Alice Goodman, it is a work of the kind destined to create a sensation even among those who normally pay little or no attention to the medium of opera; for who else has written an opera on the subject of modern international relations, an opera in which all the real-life protagonists bar one might have been present at the first performance? Mao Tse-Tung as a rich, high tenor; Pat Nixon as a lyric soprano; Henry Kissinger grumbling in sotta voce baritone: all are there, and as the Presidential plane taxis along the tarmac at an airfield outside Peking, the stage is set for history in the remaking.
Enough ink has already been spilt on questions of veracity. Alice Goodman's scrupulously researched (and beautifully written) libretto is kind to all except National Security Adviser Kissinger, and with Adams's help she succeeds in her aim of making it 'an heroic opera'. The work is curiously structured. Three acts successively reduce from three scenes to two to one, and diminish proportionally in duration from more than an hour in Act I to the unbroken 30-minute span of Act 3. As if to match the lassitude that takes over the characters by the end of the seven-day presidential visit, Act 3 is played out in the statesmen's bedrooms, a weary sequence of dialogues and soliloquies that ends the opera in a curious but calculated state of inachievement and anticlimax. Preceding this is a run of colourful scenes – grand welcomes, diplomatic exchanges, formal banquets, exotic walkabouts – that symbolize the main events of the tour without attempting to impose any artificial sense of dramatic shape, at least beyond the gradual accumulation of negative sensations: of futility, incomprehension and fatigue. By the end of the work the public faces have given way to private lives; even Nixon and Chairman Mao emerge as mere mortals rather than mythical demi-gods. It makes for curious opera.
Alice Goodman has made a spectacular job of the text. Her poetry reads well, speaks well, and in the hands of another composer might have sung well from beginning to end. But in Adams's setting it does not always register its message, and at times it is stripped of its magnificence or delicacy. In short, the music serves the libretto well in fast-moving dialogue: the bantering exchanges between Mao, Nixon and Chou en-Lai in Act I scene 3 emerge with quick-fire confidence, aided on the recording by the crisp enunciation of all the male principals. But the reflective and rhapsodic portions of text seem to leave Adams baffled, the melodic lines wandering aimlessly (if scrupulously matching the rhythm of the words), short on intrinsic musical interest and rarely moving the singers to expressive performances. It is at moments of this kind – and the long Act 3 has plenty of them – that time begins to drag. So it is that some of the finest moments in the libretto strike a dull note in performance : Chou en-Lai's rich eloquence in the Act I scene 3 banquet speech, and Pat Nixon 's long reflective arioso in the Act 2 scene I sight-seeing trip, both fall flat. Whatever virtues Adams's music may have (and it has many), he is not the world's most resourceful melodist.
In the handling of spectacle and scene-setting, by contrast, Adams is in his element. As in other scores, he freely avails himself of any idiom, any oblique references or musical quotation that serves as a means to an end. Some passages would be unthinkable without the operas of Philip Glass (are there actual borrowings from Akhnaten, or is it mere coincidence?); elsewhere there are uncanny ghosts of 1930s Stravinsky-Act 2 scene 2, the scene built around Madam Mao's "The Red Detachment of Women", is particularly rich in them; often, in the public music, tawdry fox-trot drifts in and out of the action (and that, incidentally, further elucidates Adams's independent orchestral suite , The Chairman Dances-Nonesuch/WEA 979 144-1; CD 979 144-2, 8/88-which orbits like a moon around Act 3 of Nixon in China). Those who care to pigeon-hole will find themselves perplexed. 'Minimalist' the score emphatically is not. 'Magpie' just about sums it up; and it must be said that the combination of styles suits the scenario very well indeed.
Whatever its weaknesses, there's no denying the fact that Nixon in China is a striking work. On a second hearing I was surprised to find just how much of it already seemed as familiar as a onceread newspaper article or a once-seen television newsreel. The strong libretto is largely to thank for that. All the singing is sympathetic, with James Maddalena as an aptly volatile Nixon, variously noble and vapid, imposing and insecure, and Trudy Ellen Craney coping admirably with the coloratura (yes , coloratura) lines of Madam Mao. At only 32 minutes the third CD is very short: but Nixon in China, with its odd proportions, was clearly not designed to fit neatly on to record.