JOHN ADAMS: Nixon in China – Soloists/ Opera Colorado Chorus/ Colorado Symphony Orch./ Marin Alsop, conductor – Naxos (3 CDs)

by | Feb 12, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

JOHN ADAMS: Nixon in China – Soloists/ Opera Colorado Chorus/ Colorado Symphony
Orchestra/ Marin Alsop, conductor – Naxos 8.669022-24 (3 CDs), 66:22; 51:04; 36:27 *****:

John Adams (b. 1947) is a composer whose musical viewpoint might be considered a form of resistance to the serialism that was ubiquitous in academic circles in the 1950s. Many composers who studied music during that era have remarked on their disillusionment with a musical technique they consider arid and inaccessible. Adams himself has likened his early study of serialism to spending time in a mausoleum. His music has always exhibited a tuneful freshness, an emotional depth and an easily accessible populism. Even as his music has incorporated elements of minimalism, Adams is never doctrinaire in his approach. His palette features a rainbow of tone colors and a wider dynamic range than stricter adherents have been willing to adopt. Nixon In China contains quotations from Wagner’s Ring Cycle as a means of suggesting a vaster dramatic canvas and a deeper emotional resonance. It also serves to separate the music from any notion that it is representative of a compositional school. The work is sui generis and Adams wishes us to know it.

Nixon in China was Adams’ first opera and it was produced in 1987 to mixed reviews. It has grown in stature since then, credited with increasing interest in opera and serving as a compositional point of departure. The larger-than-life figures of Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung, amongst others, meeting in a politically charged atmosphere in 1972 reveal themselves as flawed human beings with frailties and desires often at variance with their historical personas. Adam’s music and Alice Goodman’s libretto are filled with bitter humor, biting irony and a sense of sadness and tragedy hanging pall-like over the proceedings. The music has a melodic richness that is often beautiful despite the minimalist technical elements. The writing for voices, although declamatory, is sure-handed and effective. More than two decades after its premiere Nixon in China has not lost its ability to intrigue and to move.

This live recording made in Denver in 2008, with Marin Alsop conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the Opera Colorado Chorus, is a superb realization of a difficult opera to bring to dramatic fruition. By its nature minimalism has a motoric sameness that can easily slip into repetitive drudgery. Adams avoids a mechanical homogeneity from creeping into his music by varying dynamics and by making it highly directional in its forward motion. Alsop emphasizes the contrasts found in this score, revealing all of its dramatic possibilities and insuring that it is always emotionally satisfying. She does a superb job in bringing this music to life, as do the soloists who are exemplary. The orchestra sounds committed and plays with a thrilling bravado when the drama is heightened. This is a brilliantly realized performance of one of our finest modern operas.

Although this is a live performance the sound is clear and solid. There are artifacts of the stage in the recorded sound such as slightly recessed acoustics and a touch of reverberation but nothing detracts from the overall effect of the performance.

— Mike Birman

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