ADAMS El Niño
Chosen as the climax of last year’s The Rest is Noise festival of 20th-century music on London’s South Bank, John Adams and Peter Sellars’s Anglo-Spanish Nativity looks and sounds now even more of a triumph than when it was premiered just over a decade ago. The original issue of this disc – a live recording (or collage) from the Paris premiere performances in 2000 – won a Gramophone Award in 2002.
There were some reservations at the time – repeated in last December’s London reviews – about the staging employed in Paris by co-librettist Sellars. Was his Gesamtkunstwerk combination of stage action, dance and a continuously running film which sometimes places Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus in real-time contemporary America de trop? Down, you bores! Are we so weak in concentration that we cannot handle more than one source of information at a time? Have we never watched a foreign-language film with titles or, indeed, been to an opera house?
Peter Maniura’s filming of the event inevitably becomes its own version of the piece. He’s had to make decisions about whether to go big-screen or smaller-stage and appears to have made good ones. But he hasn’t ‘improved’ the performance – he’s just recorded it. Adams and Sellars were lucky with their singers. Happy the show that can put up a trio like this, all in good voice (as is the narrating countertenor trio, who also appeared in London last year), and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s acting and movement are as impassioned as her singing. One of the countertenors is always mildly out of step physically with the others but no matter. (The cast employ a sophisticated version of the semaphore acting that Sellars introduced to the world in his Trump Tower Figaro production.) A last word of praise for the libretto, whose mix of Gospel, Apocryphal Gospel and Mexican poetry is every bit as happy and dramatic as Adams’s score. Hugely recommended.