It's been more than twenty years since the first recording of John Adams's NIXON IN CHINA came out with the original cast, and in the intervening years the opera has been established as probably the single most performed American opera in history. (It awaits its first production at the Metropolitan Opera, which should sanction its position in the operatic canon, next season.) It has thus been long overdue for a new recording, and this new Naxos set led by Marin Allsop could not be more welcome. This set takes the cast of the recent imaginative James Robinson production that played in multiple cities (including Denver, Chicago, Saint Paul, and Portland, OR) from its first iteration with Opera Colorado; the recording is from multiple live performances, although the audience reactions are fairly well edited out until curtain calls for each act (though you do hear the sounds of the dancing of the Red Guard in the famous second-act ballet sequence "The Red Detachment of Women").
First of all, the music. Allsop's conducting here is remarkable, and reveals subtleties that had long been hidden from anyone who only had the Elektra set with its uninspired conducting by Edo de Waart. John Adams's music caused such a sensation by itself that few protested too much at the time of the De Waart recording the glue-like quality of the orchestra, but Allsop's remarkable work brings out things in the opera I had never noticed closely before. In the first act, for instance, in the transitional music between the first scene at the Peking Capitol Airport and the second scene where President Nixon meets privately with Mao Tse-tung in the Chairman's study in the Imperial City, Allsop marks the movement into the chugging music that is always associated with Mao with startling drama, as if to emphasize the terrifying power of the Chairman's inestimable intellect. Then, as Nixon and Kissinger are ushered into the study, Allsop changes this music's tempo markedly twice, suggesting how Mao is going to have to purposefully slow his thinking down to converse at all with these Westerners who are not up to his philosophical standards. (Indeed, the meeting is not a real success because the President and the Chairman never speak from the same set of references.) And in Act II, Mrs. Nixon's funny visit to the Evergreen People's Commune's swine farm ("Come, come see the pigs") is marked by an exciting passage on the basses you could not hear at all on the De Waart recording.
The cast is, for the most part, quite fine. Robert Orth does not have as heroic a baritone as James Maddalena, the original Nixon, but Orth is an equally fine actor, and his plangent tones convey Nixon's neuroses admirably. Conversely, Chen-Ye Yuan as Chou En-Lai has a much more heroic baritone than his predecessor Sanford Sylvan, who slipped into Chou's sonorous lines with great ease, as if to emphasize the Premier's consummate elegance; even so, Yuan is in glorious voice, and sings the beautiful toast near the end of the first act with majesty. The most exciting member of the main cast is Tracy Dahl, who has won national awards for her Madame Mao; it is amazing to hear the expressiveness of her coloratura, and though she sings the showstopping aria "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung" at the end of Act II with all its drama and electricity, she brings out something much subtler that I had heard in the role before in Act III. (I had never been aware of the fine nuances in Madame Mao's arioso "I can keep still" in the final act until I had heard Dahl in this recording.) Marc Heller, who has sung many of the romantic tenor roles in the French repertoire, sounds perhaps more like Don Jose than Mao Tse-tung, though his singing is mostly fine. (The opera has still to be recorded with a true heldentenor singing the part as Adams envisioned; it is unfortunate that Simon O'Neill, who has sung Lohengrin at the Met and memorably portrayed Mao in the recent Minnesota Opera performances of the Robinson production, could not have sung the role here.) As Pat Nixon, Maria Kanyova chooses to emphasize the First Lady's innocence rather than her intelligence and despair as Carolann Page so memorably did in the work's original productions. Although it is lovely to hear "This is prophetic!" sung so gracefully here (Kanyova hits the high notes on the phrase "Let them pass" with perfect ease), and she has beautiful diction, you miss having as strong an actress as Page conveying how Mrs. Nixon slowly learns how to listen to the Chinese people (something her husband never learns to do) in the crucial sightseeing scene. Yet even with a few disappointments in the cast, however, this recording is absolutely worth buying. The conducting is nonpareil, and lets you hear NIXON IN CHINA as if for the first time.