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
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.