A riveting Nixon in China at the Concertgebouw

When it premiered in Houston in 1987 the American
critics were divided about its merits, but the reception at its European
premiere in Amsterdam the following year was unanimously enthusiastic.
Adams’s account of Richard Nixon’s 1972 historic visit to the
People’s Republic of China, told through the polychrome poetry of
librettist Alice Goodman, has since claimed a place in the repertoire. Last
Saturday’s performance at the Concertgebouw, led by conductor Kevin John
Edusei, did full justice to all its key musical aspects: the tidal tug of its
repeated motifs, its rhythmic adroitness and its reflective lyricism.

From the very first bars, Edusei showed a complete trust in the score. He
let the iterations of the introduction work their hypnotic effect, without
interfering with their dynamics, then turned the volume up suddenly for the
deafening landing of the presidential plane in Peking. Adams belongs to the
American minimalist movement, but he does not let minimalism cramp his style.
Besides minimalist traits such as persistent figures and a pulsating bass,
Nixon in China includes references to Richard Strauss and Richard
Wagner, sassy big band sounds and a big peppering of percussive jolts inspired
by Stravinsky. The orchestration gives saxophones and trombones a prominent
role, and includes two pianos and a keyboard sampler. The urgency and eruptions
in the orchestra reveal the momentousness of the events being televised live
across the world, while the singers repeatedly detach themselves from their
public personae to express their inner thoughts. With the sparest of gestures
Edusei made the score swish, swirl and bounce, and not just when the Mr. and
Mrs. Mao dance the foxtrot.

The National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands, consisting of Conservatory
students, gave a professional-quality performance, with a smooth and agile
string section at its core. The slightly raw edge in the trumpets and trombones
suited the brashness required from the brass. (At one point they imitate
grunting pigs.) Percussionist Frank Nelissen was a one-man, beat-perfect combo,
playing everything from slapsticks to drums. The chorus, Cappella Amsterdam,
delivered their usual youthful, homogeneous sound and they were undaunted by
the challenges of the irregular rhythms. The soloists, amplified as prescribed
by the score, gave highly involved portrayals. Robin Adams oozed confidence as
the statesman Nixon, his baritone secure and his consonants sharp as flint. He
also displayed lyrical suppleness and a touch of vulnerability as Nixon the
man, ambling down memory lane in conversation with his wife. His diction was
crystal-clear, as was Janis Kelly’s in the role of Pat Nixon. Kelly sang
with irreproachable operatic technique and the subtleties of a musical actress,
every accent and colour sounding natural. Her Pat was a likeable mixture of
practicality and feminine warmth.

As Prime Minister Chou En-lai, veteran David Wilson-Johnson compensated for
his powdery baritone, at times close to cracking, by twanging out his top notes
and infusing every phrase with meaning. Olle Persson sang robustly and with a
slight sibilant accent as Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and stage-manager
of the Sino-American rapprochement. Persson’s barky baritone also fit the
bill when Kissinger doubles as the baddie in Madame Mao’s revolutionary
ballet, The Red Detachment of Women, put on for the benefit of the
American guests. Dramatic tenor Michael Weinius made a heroic Mao Tse-tung,
totally at ease with the wide intervals and high tessitura. Evanna Lai, Iris
van Wijnen and Helena Rasker were excellent as his dusky-voiced Secretaries,
beautifully blended and sounding slightly sinister. Mao’s wife, Chian
Ch’ing, was sung by soprano Yun-Jeong Lee, who thrillingly hit
all the high notes in her soapbox aria “I am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung”.
In the final act she glided through her soliloquy “I can keep
still” with gorgeous elegance.

The ruminative nature of Act III, with its contrast to the eventfulness of
the first two acts, can seem anti-climactic. The participants in this
extraordinary political episode retire to their bedrooms and reflect on their
lives, reminiscing on their past. Adams sends his characters to sleep with a
Straussian violin solo as Chou En-lai wonders whether his political decisions
were the right ones. In a concert version, it can be hard to keep track of the
divergent monologues without the help of visual cues from the stage. It hardly
mattered — this top-tier performance stayed musically riveting to the

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Richard Nixon: Robin Adams, baritone; Pat Nixon: Janis Kelly, soprano; Chou
En-lai: David Wilson-Johnson, baritone; Mao Tse-tung: Michael Weinius, tenor;
Henry Kissinger: Olle Persson, baritone; Chian Ch’ing: Yun-Jeong Lee,
soprano; Nancy T’ang, First Secretary to Mao: Evanna Lai, mezzo-soprano;
Second Secretary to Mao: Iris van Wijnen, mezzo-soprano; Third Secretary to
Mao: Helena Rasker, alto. Cappella Amsterdam, National Youth Orchestra of the
Netherlands. Conductor: Kevin John Edusei. Heard at the Concertgebouw,
Amsterdam, Saturday, 11th February 2017.

image_description=Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon
product_title=A riveting Nixon in China at the Concertgebouw
product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri
product_id=Above: Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon