“We live in unsettled times. Who are our enemies, who are our friends ?” This cry would certainly be very fitting in the current world political landscape, but in John Adams’ first opera it is another polarizing president of the United States, Richard Nixon, that sings it, as he arrives in Beijing for his state visit. Nixon in China relates the 1972 visit to Chairman Mao Tse-tung in Beijing – an event that was the seed of the “one-China” policy, recently much-maligned by some.

John Adams © Vern Evans
John Adams
© Vern Evans

Nixon in China was premiered at Houston Grand Opera almost 30 years ago in a production directed by Peter Sellars, revived only nine months later in Amsterdam. The then Netherlands Opera, now Dutch National Opera, was one of the commissioners. The Dutch public at the time received the production very enthusiastically, and I can imagine that, as they took their seats, some members in the audience last Saturday wondered how the work would fare almost 30 years later, in a concert performance without staging. The answer is: very well indeed.

There was no jet landing on stage at the Concertgebouw, but the energized playing of the National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands led by conductor Kevin John Edusei certainly more than compensated for any missing visual coup de théâtre. The pulsating music raced and meandered between bombastic brilliance – as when Nixon’s jet lands – and soothing lyricism during the characters’ reflective musings. The brass, and there is a lot of it in a score that often uses references to jazz, shone especially, as did the percussion. The audience was kept on its toes by the young orchestra’s confident manoeuvring between frequent shifts in rhythmic and colour. The score is certainly more varied than the pigeon-holing label “minimalist” suggests. The only moment when my attention somewhat flagged was the Act 2 ballet The Red Detachment Women, a performance within the performance which, without the visual support of a staging, felt confusing and lengthy.

The superb orchestral performance was matched by overall strong vocal performances, only disturbed at the beginning by faulty amplification, a problem luckily quickly adjusted. The libretto isn’t of course an historically correct rendition of the diplomatic journey. On a background of actual events, the six main characters are presented in an almost classical manner with arias and ensemble parts, expressing everything from the most platitude-ridden political speeches to their most personal contemplations.

As Richard Nixon, Robin Adams led the performance with a well-projected, powerful baritone with appealing colours, sounding almost too attractive for the character of a president obsessed by media coverage. Strategically timed ahead of his campaign for a second term, his entrance aria starts with “News, news, news!”. Soprano Janis Kelly gave us a winning characterisation of the First Lady, Pat Nixon, in turn touching or almost comically impressionable. Tenor Michael Weinius had the difficult task of tackling the treacherous part of Mao Tse-tung – written for a Heldentenor with sudden darts into the top range – whose distracted statements become bizarrely surreal, echoed as they are by his trio of secretaries (Evanna Lai, Iris van Wijnen and Helena Rasker). Korean soprano Yun-Jeong Lee managed with apparent ease the leaps into stratospheric heights of her show-piece aria (“I am the wife of Mao-Tse-Tung”), her lyric timbre sounding perhaps a tad too warm for the vicious Jiang Qing (aka Madame Mao). Swedish baritone Olle Persson was a suitably cynical Henry Kissinger. David Wilson-Johnson’s mature baritone rendered Prime Minister Zhou Enlai’s final self-doubting ruminations beautifully.

Faced with such self-absorbed characters as political leaders, one can only but sympathise with the members of proletarian chorus. Even more so when the proletariat’s couplets are sang with the sterling sound and refined articulation of Cappella Amsterdam.