Friday, December 4, 2009

Is "Nixon in China" A Masterpiece?

When John Adams' Nixon in China premiered in 1987, it caused a sensation unusual in the annals of 20th century opera. And yet there were sceptics, myself included. Nixon? In China? It seemed a bit cheeky to center the subject matter on America's most discredited President.

The recording came out. I bought the excerpts edition and listened carefully. And still I could not make up my mind. What was the music all about? There were moments of questionable dramatico-musical taste, such as the aria that involved a rather banal repetition of the obvious. "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung," Madame Mao sang a few times. Well yes. That you are.

Adam's score was in the minimalist camp, but that minimalism was different than Reich, Glass, Riley. It was less trancy, less driving rhythmically and more of a series of shifting ostinatos and repetitions of motives that were not always very interesting in isolation but more in the way of development figures that never found their way back to some sort of recapitulation. Or so it seemed. Was the banality deliberate? I think it might have been.

And after all, Nixon in China was and is a grand opera for the modern era, complete with historical tableaux. Yes, OK, history. It dramatized a signal event in the life of American-Chinese diplomacy and was one of the most important signs of thaw in the long, weary Cold War that enveloped the globe in 1972.

Twenty-two years later we have a new recording of the complete opera, conducted by Marin Alsop in a live setting with soloists, chorus and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (Naxos).

It is a fine interpretation, filled with energy. Robert Orth's Nixon role is well sung, though perhaps not as dramatically Nixon-like as the original performance from James Maddalena. But the singing is all quite good and the orchestra under Alsop brings a spirited enthusiasm to the table that the original version may have had in less abundance.

But what about the opera itself? I find myself gravitating toward the first and third acts, both musically and dramatically. In both instances, but especially in Act Three, there is the theme of reflection in the midst of what all participants know is a media event, but ultimately capital H history. The reminiscing of Nixon and Mao on their pasts, Mao in a revolution that had not always gone as he would have wished, Nixon lost in the memories of his war years, facing death on one hand and flipping burgers for the servicemen on the other, have a poignancy. The actors on the historical stage have a frailty that is belied by all the pomp and puffery that surrounds them. The earlier, simpler days were better. This feels empty to them.

Adam's score manages to convey both the pomp and the individual reflection in interestingly contrasting orchestral textures. In the end history dissolves into the dreams of the principal participants. This may be the climax of their political fortunes. They seem to know it and have a certain feeling that their lives have taken on the very dream quality that their early dreams and aspirations only prefigured.

Ultimately whether Nixon in China is a masterpiece with a capital em will be the verdict of those 100 years from now. We don't entirely matter. For me, twenty-two years from the first performances, I feel that the opera is much better than we had any right to expect of it then. It has its flaws, true. But it has musico-dramatic moments of great power. History is not for the participants what it is for the spectators. The big circus, when all is said and done, has as its pivotal events the actions of a few key figures who aren't quite sure what they have been brought to do or why. Nixon never shows his hand, but he is not really sure what the cards are for in the first place.

Alsop's interpretation captures that mood very well. I'm not sure the original de Waart recording was quite as successful in that regard.

Masterpiece? Who knows. Does it matter just yet? Enjoy the opera now and leave posterity for the future.

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