Notes and Editorial Reviews
Is John Adams' El Niño the Christmas oratorio of our time? The composer admits that in his youth he wanted to write a Messiah, and this "Nativity for a new century" could be seen as the closest thing to a modern equivalent of Handel's great work. Certainly, its broad reach reflects the multicultural aspects of modern American society. In his search for source material, Adams cast his net wide, drawing on English, Spanish, and Latin texts from The Wakefield Mystery Plays, the Bible, and the Apochrypha, as well as from authors as diverse as Rosario Castellanos, Gabriella Mistral, and Hildegard von Bingen. From all of these (and more) Adams forges a work that is both a dramatic
narrative describing the miracle of the virgin birth and its aftermath, and a series of reflections on the deeper implications of the event for its time and ours.
Although it includes a number of settings of scripture, El Niño is far from the traditional religious celebration. In its mixture of exuberance, innocence, and sometimes childlike wonder, it's closer to Orff's Carmina Burana. There are also darker and grimmer strains in sections such as "And he slew all the children" and "Memorial de Tlatelolco". Adams' judicious use of Spanish texts (for more than one third of the work) broadens our perspective on the Nativity tradition--and yields some most likely unattainable poetic imagery, as in the powerfully moving "La Anunciación", or "Se habla de Gabriel" which describes, from the woman's point of view, the bittersweet experience of pregnancy.
Of course, the real star here is Adams' music, which like the texts is an amalgam of different styles ranging from neo-baroque to modern-pop, yet still winds up sounding like Adams. As with his other large-scale vocal works, there are distinct traces (still) of Philip Glass' influence (most notably in "Dawn Air"). Indeed, the music explores a good bit of Adams' earlier stylistic oeuvre. In "Magnificat", Mary's ecstatic soliloquy evokes Pat Nixon's famous aria from Nixon in China, while the runaway train of Fearful Symmetries returns in "Woe unto them that call Evil Good". There are even passages reminiscent of Adams' most recent orchestral work, the massive Naïve and Sentimental Music (reportedly recorded by Nonesuch, but as yet unreleased). But there's also much that's strikingly new, as in the wonderfully euphonious counterpoint of "The Christmas Star" that ends Part 1, while Part 2 opens with "Pues mi dios ha nacido a penar", a serenely beautiful meditation that could have come from no other composer.
The performers were all carefully and ideally chosen. Dawn Upshaw sings Mary with an intense radiant purity. She shares the character with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whose performance of "La Anunciación" positively captivates. Willard White's ubiquitous appearances form the lynchpin of the work--his rich voice at times sounds inspiring (as in "Dawn Air") and terrifying ("Shake the Heavens" and "When Herod heard"). I admit to never having really warmed to the sound of countertenor voices, but Adams employs them here to striking effect, giving the impression of angelic beings (as rendered by the Theatre of Voices). The sonorous choral contributions of the London Voices give the music its psuedo-oratorio feel.
The entire assemblage, including the Deutsches-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (here displaying stunning rhythmic alacrity), is skillfully held together and propelled by Kent Nagano's wholly convincing and involving performance. Sonically, this multifarious piece covers an exceptionally wide dynamic range, captured with remarkable fidelity by Nonesuch's clear, three-dimensional recording. The production of El Niño was directed by Adams' longtime collaborator Peter Sellars and involved a good deal of stage action, paintings, and even film. That Adams' masterful creation remains enthralling for the home listener despite the missing visual element is a testament to the miraculous power of this recording. It simply demands to be heard. [11/16/2001]
--Victor Carr Jr., ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
El Niño by John Adams
Dawn Upshaw (Soprano),
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Mezzo Soprano),
Willard White (Baritone)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin,
Theatre of Voices
Period: 20th Century
Date of Recording: 12/2000
Venue: Châtelet Theater, Paris, France
Length: 111 Minutes 11 Secs.
Notes: This selection is sung in Spanish and English.
For with God Nothing Shall Be Impossible
The Babe Leaped in Her Womb
Now She Was Sixteen Years Old
Pues Mi Dios Ha Nacido A Penar
Woe Unto Them That Call Evil Good
And the Star Went Before Them
And When They Were Departed
And He Slew All the Children
In the Day of the Great Slaughter
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