John Adams Nixon in China Prom 72
6 Sep 2012
Because John Adams was conducting his own opera Nixon in China at BBC Prom72, it was one of the season "musts". Any opportunity to hear a composer conduct his own work shouldn't be passed up for the obvious reason that he's the ur-source. On the other hand, composers don't necessarily have objectivity. At the culmination of  the BBC's week-long focus on Adams, objectivity wasn't an issue. Besides, this music works when you give yourself up to the whole experience uncritically.

Nixon in China isn't history. It's curiously distorted even as an outsider's view on events. Kissinger, for example was the prime mover, not Nixon, and certainly not the venal molester Adams depicts him as. Why does Adams mount this vicious, irrational libel?  The very fact that Kissinger didn't get an injunction against this opera speaks volumes. This should be  a clear warning to anyone who thinks this is an opera about modern events. It's not. Nixon in China is a work of such political shallowness that it's pointless to consider it as normal dramatic narrative.

Rather, it's a musing on events  from the perspective of those who have no idea what's going on. "Who are our, our, our..... enemies? Who, who, who are ......our friends?"  Nixon and his entourage might as well be visitors to the Moon, for all they understand about China, or indeed about themselves. "The old, cold, Cold Warriors piloting towards the unknown". It's fashionable to knock Alice Goodman's libretto, but it's a great deal more subtle than you'd assume. Mao Tse Tung mumbles about cranes and cod philosophy. But as Goodman shows, he's weaving mumbo jumbo, while remarks about China's "Manifest Destiny" surface, a sharp dig at US political theory towards Native Americans.

The opera evolves in a series of tableaux - Mao on the sofa, the banquet, the visit to a commune, the ballet. The Chinese are putting on a show that the Americans can't penetrate. The original staging, by Peter Sellars, was so literal that it replicated photographic images of the events, down to minutiae like Mao's spittoon. It reinforced a fixation on irrelevant superficialities. It was  maddening because there is more to this opera than even Adams realizes, I suspect. If Nixon in China is about non-comprehension, the music fits the mood perfectly. Clues, clues, clues, repetition, repetition, repetition.  It's the way the mind turns data over and over, in the hope of somehow making sense oif things.

Perhaps the Proms semi-staging helped because it freed the opera from Sellars' simplistic barriers. In the abstraction, our minds can process for ourselves. This performance showed why there's such a lack of differentiation between the setting of the male parts. You can  recognize Gerald Finley and Alan Oke because they're so familiar but you don't recognize them as Chou and Mao respectively. Robert Orth (Nixon) and James Rutherford (Kissinger) you recognize by voice type rather than personality. Mao is surrounded by a trio of secretaries, and a larger chorus represents the identikit Red Guards, soldiers, dancers. Perhaps Adams is suggesting that the regimentation of the Cultural Revolution applies to Americans too? The machine-like cadences of his music portray conformity to a mind numbing degree, but work perfectly for this concept.

There's more variety in the writing for female voice. Jessica Rivera's Pat Nixon veers dangerously shrill, but that is entirely in character for Pat Nixon. "I come from a poor family" she sings, identifying with the Chinese masses. All her life she's been forced into playing an artificial, decorative role. So when she sees the ballet The Red Detachment of Women, she responds to the dancer who plays the oppressed woman and tries to intervene. To her, the boundaries of art and reality are falling apart. Good for Pat! I thought, though strictly speaking, it's good for Alice Goodman who wrote these words. We don't know what the real Pat Nixon felt. Kathleen Kim sings a sharp Madame Mao, Pat's feistier, nastier counterpart. Kim also sang the role in the superlative Paris (Chatelet) production this year. Read more about that HERE.

The Paris production, the MET revival of 2011 and this BBC Proms concert contrast strongly.  By far the best was Paris, conducted, directed and performed by people outside the Adams/Sellars circle.  This is telling, because the French production approached the opera from a very different perspective.  Less emphasis on unquestioning incomprehension, more emphasis on personality. Through strong casting, the roles emerged as believable characters. Alexander Briger conducted with firm focus, bringing out the psychological dysfunction beneath the OCD-like repetitions. John Adams at the Proms is celebrating 25 years of success. He wrote the opera, so he can afford to indulge. This Prom was a good experience but I ended up listening afterwards to the original Red Detachment of Women (full download here)  It is worrying when you find more depth and colour in a blatantly stylized ballet written for propaganda purposes.  Maybe I'm just in nostalgic mode. But try it yourself. Listen to the rebroadcast of the Proms Nixon in China and then to the anonymous music in the film.  Madame Mao (who was behind the ballet) has the last laugh after all! 


Golijov: Ainadamar
Poulenc: Gloria in G major
Spohr: Songs (6), Op. 103
Salazar: Canciones Mexicanas (3)
Adams: A Flowering Tree
Golijov: La pasión según San Marcos
Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music
Barber: Knoxville, Summer of 1915, Op. 24
Górecki: Symphony no 3, Op. 36 "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"
Mompou: Combat del somni
Theofanidis: Creation/Creator
Vaughan Williams: Dona nobis pacem
Spano: Hölderlin-Lieder: No. 1, Lebenslauf

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