November 19, 2009


John Adams: Nixon in China. Robert Orth, Maria Kanyova, Thomas Hammons, Marc Heller, Tracy Dahl, Chen-Ye Yuan, Melissa Malde, Julie Simson, Jennifer DeDominici; Opera Colorado Chorus and Colorado Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $26.99 (3 CDs).

Britten: The Beggar’s Opera. Susan Bickley, Jeremy White, Leah-Marian Jones, Tom Randle, Robert Anthony Gardiner, Donald Maxwell, Sarah Fox, Frances McCafferty; City of London Sinfonia conducted by Christian Curnyn. Chandos. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Tchaikovsky Romances. Dmitry Hvorostovsky, baritone; Ivari Ilja, piano. Delos. $16.99 (2 CDs).

     One of the greatest accomplishments of President Richard Nixon – some would call it the matter for which he will be positively remembered – was opening normalized relations between the United States and Communist China. It may be that only so staunch an anti-Communist as Nixon could have pulled off such a rapprochement in the midst of the Cold War. Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, and his meeting with Mao Tse-tung and Madame Mao, could be the stuff of opera – even though it was, in reality, the stuff of politics. But John Adams has made it the stuff of opera with Nixon in China, which is now available in a mostly excellent recording led by Marin Alsop, assembled from several live performances in June 2008. Alsop, who directed the Colorado Symphony from 1993 to 2004, clearly knows how to bring out the best from the musicians, and the fine vocal performances by the principals help move along a story that is short on action (most of what happens is ceremonial) but is focused, in Alice Goodman’s libretto, more on the characters’ inner lives and their sense that they are making history. That is particularly the case with Nixon (Robert Orth, who does an excellent job inhabiting the character of this complex and deeply flawed president) and his wife, Pat (Maria Kanyova, a fine foil for her husband and an equally strong singer). Arrayed against them, yet with ultimately the same sense of being present at a historic moment, are Mao Tse-tung (since revised in spelling to Zedong), who is mostly bluster in Marc Heller’s portrayal, and Madame Mao (Tracy Dahl, whose voice is slightly shrill but whose characterization is effectively chilling). Chen-Ye Yuan makes Cho En-lai thoughtful and introspective, but there are some overdone political notes in the opera’s rather buffoonish characterization of Henry Kissinger (well sung by Thomas Hammons). This is an interesting and impressive opera that is certainly one of Adams’ most important works, but it should be noted that it is by Adams, which means there are long sections of repetitive music – some of which seem to wear on the orchestra, which is otherwise well-balanced and responsive to Alsop’s direction. Diplomacy in opera certainly came a long way in the 82 years between Franz Lehรกr’s The Merry Widow and Adams’ 1987 work, which features – in addition to Adams’ trademark repetitiveness – frequent rhythmic changes and passages of neo-Stravinskian sound. This is a highly impressive performance of one of the few recent operas that seem likely to gain at least semi-regular stagings. And kudos to Naxos for providing the libretto.

     This is not to say that operatic success is assured even to the very best of composers. Witness the case of Benjamin Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera, which is infrequently performed and rarely recorded (the last recording dates to 1993). This is, in fact, the least known of Britten’s stage works, although it does hold the boards from time to time in England. What Britten did in this 1948 opera was rework John Gay and Johann Pepusch’s wonderful (and bawdy) 18th-century “ballad opera” of the same title – not in the way Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill did when they created The Threepenny Opera from the same source, but in his own musical language. The 1728 original was inspired by a letter from none other than Jonathan Swift to no less a figure than Alexander Pope, and consisted of no fewer than 69 songs – the idea being to create a play for actors who could also sing. In Britten’s hands, this is transformed into an actual opera, or meta-opera, since the concept involves re-setting the scene in a laundry filled with beggars – who reenact the Gay/Pepusch story of the often-appealing scoundrel Macheath and his two lovers (wife and mistress). Britten keeps the original’s audience-participatory ending, in which patrons can help save Macheath from the gallows with their applause (Brecht and Weill jettisoned it in order to strengthen their sociopolitical points about Weimar Germany). And even though Britten uses the original 18th-century tunes in this opera, he gives them his very personal compositional stamp – and considerable satirical bite, although of a type quite different from that of Brecht and Weill. The changes, additions and updates to Gay’s libretto are by Tyrone Guthrie, and they are by and large quite effective; it helps enormously to be able to follow along in Chandos’ included libretto. The performance is a very fine one, with the intimate feeling appropriate to a chamber opera and with soloists who all manage to combine genuine operatic vocalization with verbal bite. Tom Randle is particularly good as Macheath, but Leah-Marian Jones (Polly), Sarah Fox (Lucy), Susan Bickley (Mrs. Peachum) and Jeremy White (Mr. Peachum) more than hold their own, and the interplay of the other soloists with the principals is very effectively managed by conductor Christian Curnyn. The performance is so good that it argues for more-frequent stagings of this underappreciated Britten gem.

     Prefer something more of the Romantic era – and more romantic as well – than either Adams or Britten? The Dmitri Hvorostovsky release called Tchaikovsky Romances can be looked at as an encore to the full-length operas – or simply as two full CDs of encores. Hvorostovsky’s rich, expressive baritone voice has just the right timbre for “None but the Lonely Heart,” “It Was in the Early Spring,” “Don Juan’s Serenade” and the other short but sweet – often very sweet – songs here. There are two dozen in all, each delivered with gorgeous tone and a great deal of feeling, and all of them accompanied in just the right vein by pianist Ivari Ilja, who provides firm support without ever getting in the way of what is clearly a vocally focused recording. In truth, listening to all 24 songs at one time may be a bit much: Hvorostovsky has considerable vocal power and impressive range, but the songs themselves become a bit monochromatic after a while. This release therefore gets a (+++) rating: as well sung and well played as it is, it does tend to be a bit “much of a muchness.” But it certainly offers plenty of Romantic/romantic singing – it’s just that it’s more effective when taken a bit at a time than in a single large dose.

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