Prom 72 - Nixon in China

John Adams conducted his own Nixon in China at the BBC Proms last night, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and an international star cast of soloists. With a well-balanced orchestral performance and a show-stopper of an aria from Kathleen Kim, this was performed as well as I could have hoped for.

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Every opera should have at least one of those “wow” moments that lift you out of your seat and have you singing them in your head on the way home. In the case of John Adams' Nixon in China, it comes at the end of Act II, when Chiang Ch'ing struts onto the stage and announces that “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung” in a blistering aria filled with aerobatic climbs and swoops and rather Wagnerian major to minor shifts. Kathleen Kim, who sang the role at the Met last year, turned in exactly the sort of show-stopping performance that the number demanded.

Not, it must be said, that Kim was out there on her own: the BBC assembled the sort of international star cast you'd expect only to see in a major opera house. With Adams himself conducting, there won't have been any argument over whether the composer's wishes were being respected, and he conjured perfect balance and plenty of flair from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Gerard Finley displayed his warm baritone lyricism to wonderful effect as a reflective Chou En-Lai - an old man coming to the end of a lifetime's achievement and musing on its worth. Alan Oke was brash, mercurial and slightly batty as Mao; another highlight of the evening was the Act III duet between Oke and Kim in which they muse on old times, veering between lasciviousness and the repetition of familiar political mantras.

Robert Orth must have clocked in a large tract of the last few months looking at old news footage of Nixon: with slicked back hair, glad-handing gestures and an injection-moulded grin, he was scarily like the Tricky Dick that I remember; Orth also came close to matching Finley vocally. Overall, this was far more a concert performance than the “semi-staged” performance advertised, with music stands and microphones for the singers, but both Orth and Jessica Rivera as Pat Nixon acted their socks off. Rivera's big moment comes in Act II Scene 1, when she comes out with a marvellous string of politician's platitudes and sang with wit and energy. And there were a few fun moments of staging, not least the model Boeing “Spirit of 76” passed hand to hand across the chorus as the Nixons' flight approaches, eventually being proudly presented to Chou.

It would be a mistake to come to Nixon in China looking for any kind of operatic drama. This isn't an opera in which events happen: rather, it's an exploration of the characters of the powerful. For each of the protagonists, we get a little window of insight into the human being behind the public face, warts and all, and into the strange rapport developed between power players who are so vastly divided by geography, culture and ideology. I'm not a student of the biographies of those times and therefore have no idea whether or not the portrayals are historically accurate. What I can say with certainty is that they come across as poignant and persuasive; Alice Goodman's libretto is intricate, wordy and sparkles with wit.

Adams is usually categorised as a “minimalist” composer, with the music for Nixon in China labelled as “eclectic”. Neither term really tells the story. Certainly, Adams includes a whole bunch of different musical moods of the period, using an extended orchestra to help (synthesizer, saxophones, many percussion instruments). And overwhelmingly, the score is built on top of a series of repeated figures in the minimalist style. But the repeated figures are many, varied and constantly in motion between each other, and the non-classical elements are seamlessly merged into Adams' orchestral textures with immense skill. The score is so constantly full of interest that it was only on rare moments that I found myself drifting into the sort of hypnotic state that (say) a Philip Glass piece would induce.

Nixon in China isn't for everyone: it will satisfy neither an operatic traditionalist who wants a series of high octane arias and melodramatic crises, nor a devotee of verismo who wants a gritty tale to chill the spine. But if you come to it with open ears and mind, there's enormous enjoyment to be had in the cleverness of the libretto and the amazing versatility of the music. In this Prom, it was performed as well as I could have hoped for - and, of course, there was that show-stopper from Kathleen Kim, which I will remember for a long time.

Programme

Adams, John (b. 1947), Nixon in China (concert performance)

Artists

Chiang Ch'ing: Kathleen Kim, Soprano

Mao Tse-tung: Alan Oke, Tenor

Chou En-lai: Gerald Finley, Baritone

Richard Nixon: Robert Orth, Baritone

Pat Nixon: Jessica Rivera, Soprano

Henry Kissinger: James Rutherford, Bass

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra

John Adams, Conductor

Paul Curran, Director

Alice Goodman’s poetic, intensely original libretto is based on Richard and Pat Nixon’s historic three-day visit to China in 1972. Protagonists viewed initially as transcendent iconic figures are not so much satirised as seen for what they are. The score pounds away eclectically with nods to Broadway and rock, Minimalism and Igor Stravinsky, but there’s no mistaking the identity of the composer, who joins us tonight, nor the colour and brilliance of one of the iconic works of our time.

Royal Albert Hall

Kensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP