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John Terauds
Toronto Star, February 2011

Robert Orth is one of four members of the principal cast of the Canadian Opera Company production of Nixon in China to be featured on a 3-CD box released by Naxos in 2009. The strong singing and exceptionally muscular and nuanced playing by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra under American star conductor Marin Alsop make for a richly satisfying listen.  The booklet includes the full libretto.

Paul Pelkonen
Superconductor, January 2011

released on Naxos in 2009 is a live recording from Denver, Colorado. Robert Orth sings the title role, and Marin Alsop conducts. Ms Alsop takes a more lyrical approach to John Adams’ score, stretching out the textures to create an operatic feel…recommended.

Chip Michael
Interchanging Idioms, March 2010

The Naxos label’s recording of John Adams’ Nixon in China for Opera Colorado, featuring Colorado Symphony Conductor Laureate Marin Alsop and the Colorado Symphony, is receiving rave reviews. The recording was made live at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver, Colorado from June 6-14, 2008.

Only the second recording in history of Adams’ Nixon in China, this release has caught the attention of critics throughout the classical music industry from Opera News and BBC Music Magazine to the Financial Times and e-Music. Music lovers and critics across the country and around the world are praising this release as a new standard in the genre.

The live performances of Nixon in China at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in June 2008 were presented as a part of the National Performing Arts Convention and League of American Orchestras Conference.

In a review of this Naxos recording for Audiophile Audition [February 12, 2010], Mike Berman states: This live recording made in Denver in 2008, with Marin Alsop conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the Opera Colorado Chorus, is a superb realization of a difficult opera to bring to dramatic fruition. By its nature minimalism has a motoric sameness that can easily slip into repetitive drudgery. Adams avoids a mechanical homogeneity from creeping into his music by varying dynamics and by making it highly directional in its forward motion. Alsop emphasizes the contrasts found in this score, revealing all of its dramatic possibilities and insuring that it is always emotionally satisfying. She does a superb job in bringing this music to life, as do the soloists who are exemplary. The orchestra sounds committed and plays with a thrilling bravado when the drama is heightened. This is a brilliantly realized performance of one of our finest modern operas.

The recording also received top placement in Opera News as Critic’s Choice with the headline stating, “Marin Alsop leads a vigorous new recording of John Adams’ Nixon in China that affirms the opera’s status as a modern classic.” In the review, Joshua Rosenblum states: Conductor Marin Alsop’s approach – vigorous and transparent – is apparent right out of the gate, as the pulsing A-minor scales begin their cyclical variations. Orchestra clarity is unfailingly impressive. When the Opera Colorado Chorus enters a couple of minutes later, it’s clear they have been drilled with the same emphasis on precision. Alsop makes the Colorado Symphony Orchestra sound like a force to be reckoned with – even more vital than the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Edo de Waart in 1987.

“I'm thrilled with the critical response to our debut venture,” said Marin Alsop, “and I’m pleased that our collaboration has brought so much attention to this terrific opera.” Currently music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop’s ever expanding list of acclaimed recordings for Naxos continues to grow. Known for championing contemporary music by American composers, she has also received much critical acclaim for her Brahms symphony cycle recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. When asked in an interview for the Spring 2010 issue of Listen magazine about the legacy she hopes to leave through her recordings, Alsop states, “I hope it would be to bring a special perspective to a range of repertoire, from the Brahms symphonies…all the way through Dvorák with Baltimore and John Adams’ Nixon in China. So I hope that it’s bringing some kind of special connection with the composer, regardless of the era or the nationality. I think American music has played a big role in my career for any number of reasons, not least of which is that it was a good entrée for me.”

"The number of extremely positive reviews has been overwhelming and I am thrilled to have achieved such a prominent feature in Opera News,” stated Executive Director of Opera Colorado Gregory Carpenter, who is pleased by the outstanding critical acclaim the recording is receiving. “Our collaboration with the Colorado Symphony has been tremendously gratifying and is a testament to the exceptional quality of the performing arts in Denver.”

“We are delighted to continue our long, ongoing partnership with Opera Colorado and to celebrate the advent of a recording relationship with this seminal American work,” said Colorado Symphony President & CEO James W. Palermo . “John Adams’ masterpiece is given a magnificent performance by the combined forces, demonstrating the depth of musical accomplishment of the performing arts in Denver .”

Naming it CD of the month in December 2009, Classic FM’s Andrew Mellor stated, “Alsop lets you hear the workings of the music… Adams ’s score hasn’t dated a bit. It’s come up gleaming anew. And at budget price, Naxos’ Nixon really is one for our times.” On e-Music’s best albums of 2009 list, this recording of Nixon in China landed at number 21.

Stephen Estep
American Record Guide, March 2010

I saw Robert Orth as Nixon at the Cincinnati Opera a few years ago; he looked so much like the president that many of us burst into laughter at his appearance. He did a superb job on the part, as he does here, and his English is the best I’ve heard from any opera singer.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
International Record Review, December 2009

Naxos’ new Nixon…seems doubly auspicious, given Orth’s experience in the title role…and given the guiding experience of Marin Alsop, a vastly more inventive and subtle conductor that Edo de Waart who presided over the Nonesuch version…Orth is an impressive Nixon.

Andrew Mellor
Classic FM, December 2009

Alsop lets you hear the workings of the music…Adams’s score hasn’t dated a bit. It’s come up gleaming anew. And at budget price, Naxos’s Nixon  really is one for our times.

Anna Picard
BBC Music Magazine, December 2009

Nixon is a young man’s opera—loud, louder, loudest. But Alsop balances rhythmic drive with careful pointers to Adam’s later, more lyrical achievements…Robert Orth gives a remarkable sung impression of the president’s speaking voice.

John Allison
Gramophone, December 2009

John Adams’s first opera—still surely his most significant work—was premiered in 1987 and committed to disc soon after, so a new recording has long been due. Unlike much of the composer’s more recent music, Nixon in China is rich enough to withstand different interpretations, and Marin Alsop is the persuasive conductor of this live recording from Opera Colorado’s 2008 production…Revisting Nixon, it’s good to find it still standing up well, and there can be little doubt that the work will retain its place in the repertory alongside great historical operas of the past. Just as many opera-goers today learn some of their history from the stage, those in a century’s time may well glean something here from the moment the two great 20th-century “isms”—capitalism and communism—came face to face. Like even the most neglected Italian historical works, this one fleshes out the bald factual details with deeper characterisation. Though Act 3 may be something of an anti-climax, it is where the characters reflect on their shattered dreams.

And several of this cast have the drama in their bones, having also sung their roles in co-producing St Louis in 2004 and at other venues before coming to Colorado. Robert Orth is powerful yet detailed in the title-role, and Maria Kanyova sings the neurotic Pat Nixon with great intensity. Tracy Dahl is strong in Madame Mao’s coloratura, and there are good performances from Thomas Hammons (Kissinger) and Marc Heller (Mao Tse-tung)…, November 2009

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 Lehár’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.

John Fleming
St. Petersburg Times, November 2009

Album: Nixon in China (Naxos)

In stores: Now

Why we care: Finally, a new recording (only the second since the 1987 original) of Adams’ iconic opera in a three-CD release. The Opera Colorado production was recorded live in 2008, with Marin Alsop conducting the Colorado Symphony.

Why we like it: The opera (with Alice Goodman’s superb libretto) chronicles President Richard Nixon’s breakthrough journey to China in 1972. Robert Orth and Maria Kanyova are stellar as Richard and Pat Nixon, with Orth’s comic portrayal reflecting how feelings have mellowed toward Nixon. The star is the minimalist score, smartly conducted by Alsop.

Reminds us of: Philip Glass, Steve Reich

Download this: News Has a Kind of Mystery

Grade: A

Sarah Bryan Miller
STL Today, November 2009

Not many contemporary operas get a first recording, let alone a second. John Adams’ memorable, mesmerizing score for "Nixon in China"—with a beautifully poetic libretto (excepting the odd obscenity from Madame Mao) by Alice Goodman—has proved surprisingly resilient.

The production from which this recording was made, live in performance at Opera Colorado, originated at Opera Theatre of St Louis, directed by now-artistic director James Robinson. It’s been seen and heard at Portland (Ore.) Opera, Minnesota Opera, Chicago Opera Theatre and Houston Grand Opera as well.

It retains its principal singers and original conductor from OTSL; at this point, they all fully and intimately inhabit their characters. Musically, it’s compelling, from the opening mechanistic moments to the dreamy conclusion.

Especially notable are the Nixon of baritone Robert Orth, who brings out the full humanity of a flawed but hardly evil man; soprano Maria Kanyova’s likable, up-from-poverty Pat Nixon; baritone Chen-Ye Yuan as a wise, sympathetic Chou En-lai; and coloratura soprano Tracy Dahl as a thoroughly chilling Madame Mao.

The other characters—Thomas Hammons’ thuggish Henry Kissinger, Marc Heller’s doddering Mao, and the Three Ladies-like trio of Melissa Malde, Julie Simson and Jennifer DeMonici as the Secretaries—are solidly sung, as is the Opera Colorado Chorus, under the direction of chorusmaster Douglas Kinney Frost.

They’re propelled by conductor Marin Alsop’s immaculate grasp of the score. This being a live performance, there are occasional technical issues and imperfect balances, but overall the recording is a superb documentation of one of the decade’s most memorable productions.

Parterre Box, November 2009

Marin Alsop knows her way around American music, and her reading is taut and inspired. She moves the action along (as much as Adams’s music allows) and keeps excitement bubbling (again, as much as the music allows).

Pat and Dick are both interesting here. Maria Kanyova, as Pat, is the only singer who sings like this is opera. Her other roles include Butterfly and Violetta and it shows. The voice is fluid, beautiful and ballsy. She’s also the only singer that phrases beautifully. “This is prophetic” is easily the highlight of the recording. Kick-ass singing.

Robert Orth manages to be charismatic and idiomatic as Nixon while singing with grainy, unsupported tone. It’s a believable and truly interesting portrayal.

James W. Wright
Vancouver Opera, November 2009

[In an article promoting Vancouver Opera’s production, General Director James W. Wright praised four of the soloists who also feature on Naxos’s recent recording.]

Robert [Orth] is a leading baritone with major opera companies including New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, D.C., Houston, Seattle, and Los Angeles. He was named “Artist of the Year” by both New York City Opera and Seattle Opera. New York City Opera also gave him the Christopher Keene Award for new and unusual repertoire. He is, in my opinion, the world’s leading interpreter of Richard Nixon.

Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan’s clear, supple voice and his ability to portray vastly different characters have earned him international acclaim. He was a winner of the 1998 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and won the gold medal in the 1994 International Tchaikovsky Competition. During his recent recital tour in Asia, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing honoured him with the title Visiting Professor.

Canadian coloratura soprano Tracy Dahl has established herself as an important artist on the international concert and opera stages. Her flair as an actress, as well as her outstanding vocal abilities, have received high praise. Described as “a bright bird of her species” by the Vancouver Sun, “her extreme high notes,” according to the Boston Globe, “are both easy and spectacular.” Tracy recently sang in VO’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Der Rosenkavalier.

…Basso buffo Thomas Hammons joined The Metropolitan Opera in 1996 in Tosca and has appeared there annually in Le nozze di Figaro, Billy Budd, Die Meistersinger, La bohème, and Werther. His acclaimed portrayal of Henry Kissinger in Nixon in China originated with Houston Grand Opera in 1987 and he has since taken the role to Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt and Los Angeles.

… It’s a terrific recording and takes its place beside the 1987 recording (Thomas Hammons as Kissinger is on both recordings!).

Read more

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2009

Selecting Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 was an unusual choice for an opera libretto, but it was ideal for John Adams’ minimalist style of composition. Much of it is in the form of a variant on traditional recitative with that now familiar repetitive pattern of orchestral backdrop that colours all of Adams’ scores. Of course the actual dialogue is largely presumed by the librettist, Alice Goodman, and the story has no outcome, only our knowledge of events that followed making the story relevant. In general outline it meets operatic convention, the work divided into three acts, though of very unequal length. There are lyric arias, particularly one in the second act for Pat Nixon, the President’s wife, and there are choruses that take the story forward. Though repetitive, the orchestral score must prove taxing for both musicians and conductor, and here the recording has the benefit of one of the composer’s outstanding champions, Marin Alsop. The cast is excellent, Robert Orth a powerfully voiced Nixon who seems ideally at home in this style of writing, while Maria Kanyova makes the most of her lyric passages as his wife. Chen-Ye Yuan and Marc Heller as Chou En-lai and Mao Tse-tung probably sound too American, but without caricature how do you vocally represent Chinese people? The remainder of the cast are rather ‘fill-in’ roles, but all well chosen, and excellence of diction throughout is such that we never miss a word. The Colorado chorus and symphony orchestra are splendid, Alsop adept in extracting those small changes of orchestral tone that are necessary to remove that sense of needless repetition. Equally more important is the balance she achieves between voices and orchestra, and though taken from ‘live’ opera house performances, it could not be bettered even under studio conditions. It has been recorded before, but this is on a very different level of achievement, and little wonder that the audience was so vociferous at the conclusion. The three discs come with libretto and very good notes. Highly recommended.

David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 2009

The dreamy, glossy sheen that seemed to be an Adams trademark in the original-cast recording is replaced in the new recording with a less-varnished sound picture and more hard-hitting view of the opera. Although the piece still probes the souls of its historic characters, this performance also projects the unsavory, power-mongering side of the story, most especially Robert Orth's masterfully obnoxious portrayal of Richard Nixon…Having thoroughly digested the opera, the Colorado cast copes surprisingly well with the vocal writing and deserves much credit for holding the piece together.

Robert Levine, October 2009

Nonesuch’s 1987 recording of this opera, produced when the work was new, was revelatory. Though clearly a piece of minimalism, it did not rely only on endless repetition; indeed, Adams’ musical language was varied enough to make Nixon in China a fascinating opera despite very little action and a somewhat unrevealing text by Alice Goodman. The Nixons and the events of the 1972 visit came across as oddly shallow. It’s clear now that that was the point: Nixon’s first-act rant, “News has a kind of mystery”, is much the key to the opera.

It also seems wittier and more purposefully ironic now, with Kissinger’s villainy almost overshadowed by his ladykilling; Pat Nixon’s innocence almost charming (we’ve seen worse since); Madame Mao’s berserk aria even more pointedly wacky and funny; and the contrast between Chou En-lai’s philosophizing and Richard Nixon’s simplemindedness clearer than ever. During the toasts in the third scene of the first act, Chou’s toast, an eloquent paean to the future (“Our children race downhill unflustered into peace…”), is accompanied by even arpeggios; when Nixon’s clichés take over (“a vote of thanks to one and all who made this possible”), we’re jarred into paying attention to his mundanity by disconnected, disparate tones. It’s masterly.

Each scene in the first act still strikes me as a few minutes too long, but Act 2, particularly with the spectacular and varied music for the surreal opera performance, is riveting. The frustrating last act is oblique in its dramatic thrust (it features personal reflections from all of the characters except, tellingly, Kissinger), but it is food for thought even if it is a dramatic anti-climax. It’s a strange, quiet way to end an opera—but take it for what it is.

This new recording, taken from a live performance at Denver’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House in June, 2008, is brilliant. It is sonically way ahead of the Nonesuch (which was recorded at a very low level), thus making it possible to understand almost every word, and Marin Alsop’s tempos are slightly slower than Edo de Waart’s, which also helps comprehension. She leads the score with grand sweep and understanding, and her Colorado forces bring out its colors vividly; moreover, she inspires her cast to sing as if they’re having a great time with this no-longer-new but still odd opera.

Robert Orth’s Nixon has just the right amount of self-parody that “playing” Nixon requires—the distance between 1987 and now is very long and we can sense ironies from our vantage point that we were blind to then. Maria Kanyova’s Pat also seems more sympathetic while remaining as publicly simple as she always was, and Kanyova’s voice and diction are splendid. Marc Heller handles Mao’s high tessitura, sometimes bordering on madness, with great character and flavor. Chen-Ye Yuan’s Chou is beautifully sung and he captures both the character’s joylessness and intelligence. Thomas Hammons (also on the Nonesuch recording) uses his dark, growling bass to show us everything we need to know about the cynical Kissinger, and Tracy Dahl, as Madame Mao, is pretty frightening, even while delivering her Queen of the Night-like aria.

There’s not much to decide between this set and the Nonesuch, which is still available. As mentioned, this new one is sonically superior (and cheaper), but otherwise it’s pretty much a tie. Naxos, like Nonesuch, supplies a libretto

Stephen Eddins, October 2009

Naxos’ version, with Marin Alsop conducting a live performance with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, is a welcome addition to the catalog…Maria Kanyova is superbly secure as Pat, singing with a rounded, glowing tone…Robert Orth’s Nixon…brings to the role an idiosyncratic vehemence and social awkwardness that feel more urgently and authentically Nixonian; this performance makes it sound like Richard Nixon is the role he was born to play. Orth and Kanyova offer the strongest reasons to check out this new recording. Marc Heller’s Mao Tse-tung is vocally more solid, heroic…Thomas Hammons reprises his role as Henry Kissinger, and his characterization is significantly more vivid and sharply etched here [than on the nonesuch recording]…The live audience, though, adds something; its laughter (particularly in Pat’s tour of the Chinese countryside) is a reminder that the opera is, in fact, a comedy and has moments that are very funny…Naxos’ version offers some very fine performances and is one that true devotees of the opera are likely to want to hear.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group