> John Adams El Nino DVD [IL]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
El Niño - opera
Libretto by John Adams and Peter Sellars
Soprano…………………Dawn Upshaw
Mezzo-soprano………….Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
Baritone…………………Willard White
Theatre of Voices: Counter-Tenors: Daniel Bubeck; Brian Cummings; Steven Rickards
Dancers: Daniela Graça; Nora Kimball; Michael Schumacher
Location film:
Mary…………………...Martha Carrillo
Joseph………………….Pete Galindo
London Voices, Maîtrise de Paris Children’s Choir
Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano
The world premier production from the Théâtre de Paris-Châtelet, 2000
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD Video 100 220 [147 mins]

El Niño, quoting the DVD booklet: "…is a sort of ‘Christmas Oratorio’ …The title not only means "boy" in Spanish but it is also the name given to the hurricane-like winds that threaten the southern states of America virtually every winter." In fact at its premiere in the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris it was entitled La Nativité – a less confusing and more direct title that might better have been retained. John Adams explains in his interview, in the accompanying "Making Of…" feature, that although the production is termed an opera, it is constructed very much on the lines of the classical oratorio so that the singers are not constrained by singing just one role – e.g. Willard White sings the role of God as well as Herod – thus allowing maximum fluidity and flexibility. The work is sung in both Spanish and English.

Adams’ new work is a complex concept. It takes the story of the Nativity from the viewpoint of Mary. In fact as Peter Sellars explains in his interview, it embraces many "Marys", simultaneously, in dialogue with each other, representing many viewpoints. There are the singers’ "Marys" of Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the dancers’ "Marys" that share their on-stage platform and the young on-screen Hispanic "Mary", one of many underdogs eking out a meagre existence in a desert setting near Los Angeles between the airport and the beach.

It is a brave concept and a brave attempt. But its ambiguities would need many repeated viewings to begin to grasp its full meaning through such a thicket of complex symbolism.

It should be said, however, that there is much to admire in Adams’ richly colourful and accessible score. It opens impressively with ‘I sing of a maiden’ from the anonymous Early English. It grows beautifully from the opening orchestral tissue of shifting rhythms and harmonies against a backdrop of changing pulsating light patterns, and features a red-robed chorus and two counter tenors. (The three counter tenors that comprise The Theatre of Voices nicely blended and balanced offer a commentary on the action throughout.) Another highlight is Adams’ version of the Magnificat as sung by Dawn Upshaw and the choir although it is a pity that the on-screen images are dominated by a modern ‘Mary’ complete with a formidable array of face furniture. Dawn Upshaw sings with conviction and sensitivity; so too does Lorraine Hunt Lieberson a warm and sincere singer. Willard White’s oaken tones and wonderful stage presence thrill as usual. He makes a fearful Herod and an all-loving God in Adams’s inspired closing number ‘A Palm Tree’ which he shares with a Parisian children’s choir while on-screen, the young Hispanic couple, vulnerable, sleep in their car with their new-born child. As seen through the rain-speckled windscreen, this is an apposite and moving concluding image.

Adams new opera/oratorio has much to recommend it. The music is colourful and accessible notwithstanding that the production’s images are sometimes rather obscure

Certainly worth visiting.

Ian Lace

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