Musikfest Berlin 2012: Dynamic John Adams Brings Nixon in China to Berlin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom John Adams, Nixon in China (1985/87): Soloists, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra / John Adams (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 10.9.2012. (MC)


Robert Orth, baritone: Richard Nixon, President of the USA
Jessica Rivera, soprano: Pat Nixon, his wife
Gerald Finley, baritone: Chou En-lai, Premier of the People’s Republic of China
Alan Oke, tenor: Mao Tse-tung, Chairman of the People’s Republic of China |
James Rutherford, bass: Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s advisor
Kathleen Kim, soprano: Chiang Ch’ing, Mao’s wife
Stephanie Marshall, mezzo soprano: Nancy T’sang, first secretary to Mao
Louise Poole, mezzo soprano: Second secretary to Mao
Susan Platts, alto: Third secretary to Mao


Mark Grey: Sound direction
Paul Curran: stage director
Murray Hipkin: assistant conductor

This concert performance of John Adams’s three act opera Nixon in China (the Berlin première) on the stage of the Philharmonie was for me the highlight of the Musikfest Berlin 2012. With John Adams conducting his own work supported by a talented cast of soloists and the excellent BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers there was no way I wanted to risk missing this performance and I arranged my Berlin reporting trip around the event. While I expected to it to be the year’s hottest ticket in Berlin, I could see that my enthusiasm for Nixon in China wasn’t shared by the Berlin music loving public since the Philharmonie was only around half full. No doubt the prospective Musikfest Berlin audience was showing signs of music fatigue; falling on a Monday evening this was the eleventh orchestral concert in eleven days with another seven orchestral concerts to come plus a number of instrumental and chamber recitals and vocal-only performances.

With Nixon in China John Adams has composed one of the most successful operas of the 20th/21st century – often regarded as a seminal work. Premièred in 1987 time will tell if the opera’s general popularity will be an enduring one. Of course Adam’s feted music is only one element of this impressive opera; the impact of Alice Goodman’s mightily intelligent original libretto is sadly often overlooked. It harks back to 1972 when President Nixon of the USA made his ground-breaking three day visit to Beijing in the People’s Republic of China and assisted in thawing the tense relationship between the two nations with their diametrically opposed economic and political ideologies. Although the cast were wearing costumes, this could hardly be described as a semi-staged production. Consequently I think the lack of additional staging effects, such as one would normally see in an opera house, was off-putting for an audience as were the demands of its 3 hour duration with two intervals.

Especially remarkable is the broad palette of orchestral and vocal colours that Adams uses in the score. In the hands of less skilled practitioners the repetitive rhythms would soon become wearisome, but not with Adams who writes so ingeniously in variety, content and length so as not to tire the ear too much. The opera also has the power to move the listener emotionally. For example the enormity of the meeting from a world peace perspective was very powerful and the handshake at Capital Airport, Beijing between President Nixon and Premier Chou En-Lai sent a shiver down the spine.

The star of the show was for me baritone Robert Orth as President Richard Nixon. Orth sang superbly well displaying a most distinctive American accent with crystal clear diction. Decked out in a business suit and tie it felt as if Orth was living the role and at times it was easy to imagine that he actually was the President himself. As Pat Nixon, the President’s wife, soprano Jessica Rivera dressed in a bright red dress, handbag and medium heeled black shoes was perfectly adequate in the supporting role. Her singing was to a good standard and her acting felt satisfactory; yet however, something was missing and she was a touch disengaged from the part.

Baritone Gerald Finley is a superb singer whom I have admired for some time. I have especially enjoyed his dramatic performance on DVD of John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic under Peter Sellers’ direction played by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Lawrence Renes. Dressed in a black Mandarin shirt and trousers as Chou En-Lai, Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Finlay’s keen, attractive and well centred baritone provided the most satisfying singing of the evening. I would have loved to have heard more of Finley,but sadly the role of Chou En-Lai only has moderate input in this opera. Least effective for me was the bass James Rutherford as Nixon’s advisor, Henry Kissinger. Rutherford gave the impression that he was going to give a lot more to the role than he actually was able to do; on the night his voice proved to be of only moderate quality and his enunciation was disappointing. As the rather sinister Mao Tse-tung, Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Alan Oke in his black Mandarin shirt and trousers revealed an excellent tenor voice. Brim-full with confidence Oke was direct, highly expressive with impeccable diction; and his dancing with his wife Chiang Ch’ing was impressive too. The down-side is that he is rather short on natural stage presence – which is more than just singing at a louder volume and moving faster around the stage. Another star performance was given by soprano Kathleen Kim – a black garbed pocket rocket who exploded onto the stage operating at full power and making the most of this crucial role. Both a natural singer and actress Kim’s provocative dance with her husband Mao Tse-tung demonstrated what a great mover she is too.

Over the years many composers have been poor conductors of their own work negating any particular insights they could offer into the music. John Adams is a very different proposition: he comes across as a fine conductor and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers certainly responded positively to his prompting. I enjoyed the evening thoroughly, but I’m unsure how long the Nixon in China experience will stay in the memory. In truth, this concert performance reminded me more of a large scale cantata rather than an opera.

Michael Cookson