My absolute certainty that no one could make an opera, let alone a great opera, out of such an unlikely historical event lasted five minutes into the first scene. With the landing of the "Spirit of '76" and Nixon's first big aria ("News has a kind of mystery"), I was pretty much overwhelmed and have remained so ever since.
Here is an opera full of wonders and surprises. John Adams' constantly shifting score is perfectly complemented by Alice Goodman's ingenious libretto (written wholly in rhyming couplets). And though the subject is the relationship between history and politics, composer and librettist give us some remarkably full (and rather poignant) characterizations. They're also able to deliver the big, dramatic moments we expect of grand opera.
Until recently, the only available performance of the work was the studio recording on Nonesuch led by Adams' friend and collaborator Edo De Waart soon after the Houston premiere in 1987. We now have this new recording based on a live performance in Denver's Ellie Caulkins Opera House during the 2008 National Performing Arts convention. With a strong cast and Marin Alsop conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, this performance has much to recommend it.
First and foremost, there is Marin Alsop's conducting. With her series of recordings with the Baltimore Symphony for the Naxos label, Alsop has established her reputation as a knowing and powerful interpreter of modern American symphonic works. Her recent recording of Bernstein's Mass was highly and universally (and deservedly) praised. Here again, she demonstrates her characteristic blend of intelligence and imagination. Whereas De Waart approaches the score with a brisk, no-nonsense objectivity that lets the music speak for itself, Alsop uses marginally slower tempos to reveal an even greater depth of character. There's an element of parody and musical slapstick here that's entirely missing in the earlier recording. In Alsop's hands, Nixon in China becomes a more surreal and complex work.
Robert Orth as Richard Nixon and Maria Kenyova as Pat Nixon are both equal to the demands of their very different roles. Thomas Hammons (also the Kissinger on the earlier recording) is even better here. He sings the role with a madcap swagger that gives Kissinger a diabolical, Doctor Strangelove edge. The only disappointment among the soloists is Tracy Dahl's Madame Mao. In spite of an impressive range, she doesn't quite rise to the challenge of her incendiary aria, "I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung." Trudy Ellen Craney's unforgettable version for De Waart is just about the most stirring moment in that recording. In other respects too, De Waart's performance has some advantages. The Orchestra and Chorus of St. Luke's are clearly superior to Alsop's Colorado Symphony and Chorus, and the studio performance has a technical polish and assurance that's sometimes missing here.
Still, I prefer the heat of the live performance to the perfections of the studio. I‘ve lived happily with the De Waart for going on twenty years now, and I still believe it honestly represents the virtues of one of the more original works in the entire operatic repertory. But Alsop digs deeper into the score, and her intensity and passion make it a more urgent and dramatic experience. If her forces are not always perfect, they perform with a single-minded commitment that more than compensates for the occasional lapse. Given the excellent and spacious sound, and the budget price, this recording earns my highest recommendation.