Since "Nixon in China," John Adams' stage works have undeniably broken ground in contemporary lyric repertoire, at the very least for their fresh approach to storytelling and subject matter. Even those who criticize Adams' musical style recognize the impact of his seven operatic collaborations with Peter Sellars.
A couple of decades later, these works have stood the test of time remarkably well, each one dramatically strong and stylistically relevant, each bending the genre in its own way, still drawing from traditional forms, yet surprisingly connected to modern urban life.
"El Nino" is the first of Adams' two stabs at the oratorio ("The Gospel According to the Other Mary" being the second one, a decade later), an unstaged operatic work with religious themes, a genre invented and perfected by Handel.
"El Nino" is a Nativity Oratorio, loosely modeled after "Messiah" in form and subject matter, designed to be performed either in a concert setting or staged, as was presented in the Spoleto Festival version directed by John La Bouchardiere, who also designed the production.
It tells the nativity story, in the first half from Mary's perspective before she gives birth, and in the second half focusing on the aftermath and impact of Jesus' first years. The texts are compiled from several unconventional sources, some from the King James Bible, the Wakefield Mystery plays, Martin Luther and Gnostic gospels from the Apocrypha, as well as poetry by contemporary Latin American writers, most notably Rosario Castellanos. The composer also incorporates a choral setting of "O quam preciosa" by Hildegard von Bingen.
Scored for soprano, mezzo and baritone soloists, three counter-tenors, chorus, an optional children chorus (not featured in this performance) and orchestra, the work quickly registers stylistically as John Adams, with his signature pulsating triadic harmonies, syncopated rhythms, cinematic orchestration, luminous bells and long soaring lines doubled in wide registers. It does however emphasize plucked sounds, including harp, piano, two steel string guitars and sampled zithers, and a few times includes some wonderful double-reed close-voiced textures, and low Stravinsky-like ostinatos.
It is in its vocal writing that "El Nino" clearly departs from his earlier works. Here the textures are thick, dense, in closed luminously dissonant voicings, the text fragmented and layered, vocal ranges explored and pushed to their limits with wide leaps and constant shifts. This is John Adam's best vocal writing, and was exceptionally delivered by the soloists and the ever-impeccable Westminster Choir. The a cappella choral climaxes that culminated three or four numbers were some of the most powerful moments of the evening.
Equally impressive were the three soloists, whose roles were changing throughout the piece, advancing the plot most of the time, with a few select arioso moments. Mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser was a revelation, a powerful presence with control, depth and extreme dynamic and expressive range.
The three countertenors, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Steven Rickards, have been performing this work in every production since its premiere, and they're probably the only ones who can deliver such tight textures and flawless intonation.
Having witnessed the American premiere in 2001 in San Francisco, I was challenged to compare this production with Peter Sellars' original conception, which featured a silent film with images of Los Angeles street life running in the background, strongly conveying a California flavor that the composer himself admits is very present in this work.
Nevertheless, this production was quite effective. The staging was minimal, with the orchestra elevated above a giant nativity scene of sorts with stained glass panels depicting the geographical location of each scene. In a nod to the Francescan monks who used to act out biblical scenes with puppets while spreading Christianity through Latin America, the production employs puppets and shadow puppets onstage, which represent biblical characters.
All action takes place on a bed of gravel, and chorus members are dressed in rags. This approach helps steer the audience towards the humanity of the characters and allows the performances to take center stage. Especially effective is the use of light in the production, which more than once shifts the narrative's focus by breaking the fourth wall.
Yiorgos Vassilandonakis is a professor of composition at the College of Charleston.