ADAMS El Niño (The Nativity)
An opera by John Adams’ says the packaging. Not quite. This is the composer’s multicultural‚ postfeminist‚ quasiminimalist take on Handel’s Messiah‚ drawing on sources ranging from the preChristian prophets to 20thcentury Hispanic women writers. While designed to allow fully staged productions‚ the concept and its musical realisation bring us closer to oratorio. Adams’s musical language is predictably inclusive. There’s a prominent role for three Brittenish countertenors‚ Broadway and popular idioms are more or less willingly embraced‚ and the use of repetition is sometimes reminiscent of Philip Glass in his heyday. Nostalgia operates on several levels. Adams eschews the speculative (computerdriven?) complexity of his own Chamber Symphony‚ returning‚ presumably in the interests of accessibility‚ to the more natural instrumental voicing of Harmonium and Nixon in China. This is all to the good. El Niño’s sound world is delicate and lustrous even by Adams’s standards‚ and‚ although Part 1 can seem a mite static with a surfeit of vocal recitative‚ there are fewer longueurs in Part 2. If not perhaps the unqualified masterpiece acclaimed by some critics‚ this is an effective and often truly affecting score‚ derivative to be sure yet obstinately fresh.
The performance as such is pretty much beyond criticism. The main protagonists‚ mostly old friends as well as professional colleagues‚ are on top form‚ combining absolute vocal assurance with dramatic flair – and none more so than Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Willard White’s commanding‚ now somewhat inflexible baritone seems uncomfortable as Joseph (the singers are not bound to specific roles)‚ but then he doesn’t get his best material until late in the evening. The crisp DVD images certainly help explain the sensational impact of the European première‚ a multimedia extravaganza from Peter Sellars’ top drawer in which dance and film interact quirkily with the exertions of chorus and soloists. Recognising that this wouldbeproductive tension between background and foreground elements might not work too well on the small screen‚ video director Peter Maniura has preferred to focus on the live performers‚ cutting to the filmed sequences at salient points: we are rarely given long shots taking in the whole stage. Supporting material on DVD includes a useful short documentary.
If you’ve not yet acquired a player‚ the remarkable success of El Niño is as good a reason as any to take the plunge. On the other hand‚ for those allergic to Peter Sellars’ insistently semaphored good intentions‚ the audio version (Nonesuch‚ A/01) will serve perfectly well. In either format‚ one hits shards of text with unintended but inescapable contemporary relevance. Strongly recommended.