“El Niño,” the winter child that blows up a storm, is also the name of an oratorio by the modern composer John Adams. It celebrates the coming of the miraculous child, Jesus, as recorded in the Nativity scenes and as interpreted expansively between the scenes, often with Latin American poetry. Produced in Paris and San Francisco for the millennium year 2000, “El Niño” emerged again in mid-March at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, where this writer saw and heard it. It has also been recorded on CD by Nonesuch Records, with the three soloists who have given their stamp to the production. Esa-Pekka Salonen was the orchestra conductor in Los Angeles, and Kent Nagano “conducted” the music that was recorded for the CD right after the premiere in Paris.
Visually “El Niño” is entrancing. The audience at the Chandler Pavilion had the benefit of a running text way above the stage in both English and Spanish. Underneath it, occupying the top half of the stage, was a big screen for the film that accompanied the singing. Sometimes the film choreographs what is being sung; at other times it provides a symbolic landscape. And yet again it images a lonesome city as background for a teenage Mary, with metallic piercings of ear and lip and, eventually, with a fatherless child. Peter Sellars, collaborator and friend of Adams, directed the filming.
The film is at times helpful and engrossing, serving as a multimedia reinforcement. Near the start, it includes an overly long unit of a couple in confused and restless embraces, meant to illustrate a long poem in Spanish by Rosario Castellanos of Mexico. (Her poem, “La Anunciación,” seems to present the one who is coming more as a suitor or lover than as a child.) More successfully, it has a long segment near the end based on poetry by Rosario Castellanos about the massive violence in 1968 against student protesters in the Plaza de Tlaltelolco, in Mexico City. This sequence follows the Scripture about King Herod (with a strong lyrical commentary, “Woe unto them that call Evil Good”) and songs about the three kings and their star.
What makes this an oratorio, and what plays upon one constantly, is the emphatic repetition and rapid rhythmical march of the orchestration by John Adams, along with the haunting or soaring voices of the three principals—Dawn Upshaw, soprano, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo, and Willard White, baritone. Upshaw and Hunt Lieberson traded off the role of Mary, who is truly the focus of “El Niño.” She is saluted in the final line of the oratorio, in yet another poem by Castellanos, as “Señora, garza de la llanura” (“Lady, heron of the plain”).
Most of the singing is recitative. In a modern tonality, those surprise upward steps can seem discordant, with intervals unresolved, but they can be piercingly lovely too. (This musical avoidance of easy harmonies seems a counterpart of the refusal of rhyme in most modern poetry.) The familiar texts from St. Matthew and St. Luke provide the narrative thread for “El Niño.”
In a long white dress, Dawn Upshaw, often singing while seated on the bare stage or even crawling among chorus members, reminded one that the diva has to be actress as much as melodist. The most striking song of all is, “Pues mi Dios ha nacido a penar” (“Because my Lord was born to suffer”). It is based on a poem by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and fell to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, with the chorus. Willard White appeared first as Joseph, demanding explanations from Mary, then as a cantor in the mode of Handel, telling everyone what the Lord threatens to do “in a little while,” and finally as an imperious Herod, not hesitant to slaughter the innocents. A trio of countertenors backed up the three principals. (They made White, a baritone, sound like a resonant bass, by contrast.) A men’s chorus of about 30, in household dress, their shirts in varieties of red and pink, moving in circles or blocks or other shifting forms, gave graceful body to the music.
For all those who grimace at the mere thought of modern classical music, “El Niño” is a wonderful surprise. It is so from the opening moment, with a light, spirited version of the medieval lyric, “I Sing of a Maiden.” Without losing his own distinctiveness, Adams pays some musical tribute to Handel with this work. And he concludes in the mode of Berlioz’s “l’Enfance du Christ,” by staging two very fanciful episodes of the Flight into Egypt, drawn from the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. (Much earlier he draws colorfully from the Gospel of James. The apocrypha help us appreciate the lack of embroidery in the Synoptic Gospels!) The best surprise in “El Niño,” however, is its respect for the Nativity tradition and its prayers, hymns and beliefs. The audience, understandably, cheered loudly at the end.