“El Niño” an oratorio by John Adams

    Directed by Peter Sellars.

      Music performed by The Los Angeles Philharmonic.

      Conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

      Sung by Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Willard White.

      Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, Director with four countertenors.

      Los Angeles Master Chorale, Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

      Poems from the Bible, Apocryphal Gospel of James, The Wakefield Mystery Play, Rosario Castellanos, Gabriela Mistral, Hildegard von Bingen, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Ruben Dario, Vicente Huidobro, and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

      At Brooklyn Academy of Music.

 

Review by T. Savage

 

In modern times, the oratorio, once a much-loved musical form, has returned to near obscurity. Few modern and almost no contemporary composers have written oratorios. An oratorio is usually a relatively static theatrical form in which soloists and chorus sing Biblical or pseudo-Biblical texts accompanied by a full orchestra. What distinguishes this form from, say, an opera on a biblical story like Verdi’s Nabucco, Saint-Saens’ Samson et Delilah, or Olivier Messiaen’s Sainte Francoise d’Assise is that the participants wear contemporary street clothes and stand in one place as they sing. By far the most famous oratorio is Handel’s Messiah. Other more recent examples of this kind of composition include Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Walton’s Belshazaar’s Feast, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (a classical story but considered an oratorio anyway, although performed with costumes and some staging), and Arthur Honegger’s Le Roi David.

 

Why has John Adams, now one of America’s most well-known composers, chosen to resurrect the oratorio? In the program notes accompanying the concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 22, 2003 at 7:30 PM, Adams is quoted as saying that he wanted to write “his” Messiah. Since the story depicted is the story of the beginning of the life of the person who became known as Jesus Christ, Adams may feel that he is doing precisely that. However, as wonderful as El Niño may be, it will never replace — and may not even find itself standing alongside –Handel’s masterpiece for reasons that are only partly due to the fine contemporary music Adams uses. Handel’s Messiah and the “Hallelujah Chorus” therein required for their creation a culture of total belief in the events being portrayed. This is a precondition which existed in Handel’s day but does so no longer. We live in a secular age in which the ATM and the computer terminal have replaced the confession booth; and television, the media generally, and money are the new religion. Had Adams written an oratorio based on Citizen Kane or the creation of the first computer, he might have accomplished a contemporary parallel to what Handel did in the Messiah. But how a “Hallelujah Chorus,” or something of parallel majesty and popularity could emerge from such a setting is difficult to contemplate or conceive.

 

This is not to say that El Niño isn’t a marvelous work. It is. It is also thoroughly original in many ways. But it seems a case of grandiosity for Adams to compare himself to Handel. Why not settle for influence rather than a rewriting of the greatest and most beloved piece of choral music in the English language? Perhaps because the oratorio is such a lapsed form, he feels obliged to over-promote what he has done. This is unfortunate because El Niño really does stand on its own without any intellectual hype from its creators.

 

John Adams used to be infamous (now he’s merely famous) for seizing upon current events as the sources for his operas. These include the marvelous Nixon In China and the arguable Death of Klinghoffer (recently made into a motion picture), the latter about the assassination of an elderly Jewish man on a ship by some Palestinian terrorists. Most recently, Adams presented a work for orchestra, recorded voices, and chorus in memory of the people who died on 9/11. A faint trace of this practice of exploiting recent news remains in the title of Adams’ El Niño. At first look, the title seems to imply that the work has something to do with the weather phenomenon which has plagued America for the past few years. But El Niño also means”the male baby” in Spanish. This oratorio does end with a rainstorm, as if to justify the sleight of hand presented by a catchy, up-to-date title for events which took place over two thousand years ago, if they ever happened at all.

 

Although we live in a largely irreligious or areligious era, at least among intellectuals, there have been several major composers in the past century who have devoted much of their time to the creation of often stunningly beautiful Christian religious music. These include Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Part, and John Taverner. As far as I know, none of these composers has written an oratorio. There is also the musical style sometimes loosely referred to as”New Age” music which sometimes proposes to represent mystical states in music. The musical style of John Adams’ El Niño resembles none of these musics. If God exists, as he apparently does for Adams and for these other three composers, he speaks in vastly different musical terms through each of these men’s creative egos. Adams musical style in El Niño is an odd but enjoyable combination of musical conservatism mixed with traces of his old and, one thought, abandoned style of musical minimalism. Traditionally, sacred music has usually sounded more conservative than the prevailing classical musical style of the day. Thus, what might have seemed annoying musical backtracking in a work with no religious pretensions here seems perfectly appropriate. It is as if God were taken to be an elderly man or woman who insists on”the olden style” of music. But it works. Adams seems to say”Amen” to that, which is okay. That Adams has chosen to reaffirm his interest in musical repetitions (Minimalism) at times throughout El Niño is reassuring to those of us who love this kind of music and were concerned that Adams’ apparent abandonment of it amounted to a capitulation to the middlebrow, middleclass American obsession that everything publicly presented must be accessible and nothing should force listeners or viewers to think by challenging the mostly mental couch-potatohood which most Americans have been hypnotized — or possibly brainwashed — into by the prevailing hegemony of self-satisfying intellectual laziness and stupidity. Adams challenges our mental notions of hegemony by presenting us with an oratorio in two languages, Spanish and English, rather than the two now dead languages once common to religious music, ancient Greek and, more commonly, Latin. Fortunately, all the words were broadcast on a screen above the action in what are called supertitles. For a non-Spanish-speaker like myself, this was more than helpful in following the great poetry presented in Spanish. Perhaps in some future context it might be possible or advisable that all the English words be translated into Spanish as well. But given the assumptions to be made about the potential New York City audience for a work by John Adams, this oversight was understandable. That the English words also needed to be — and were — presented in titles as well is merely an acknowledgement that all classical vocal music, regardless of how good or even contemporary requires display in order for the words to be clearly followed by the audience. Although presented with a libretto as a souvenir within my program, I was sitting in a spot where the lighting would have been insufficient for me to follow the book in the book, so to speak, so the titles were invaluable.

 

The work opens with a minimalist burst of sound accompanied, on a screen, by visual, vibrating shapes. This screen functions as a kind of visual aid throughout the work, presenting us with sensual, sexy images on the screen while the virgin conception is taking place. The point of this would seem to be that the story of Christ’s birth is that of every newborn child. While it is true that every newborn child has an amazing purity and innocence about him or her, it is nevertheless true that conception of that child required sex. Could it be that, in using the images of a contemporary child’s birth, Adams and Sellars are trying to deemphasize the less believable aspects of the human Jesus Christ’s birth? It could be. Through direction, both of the live participants and of what appears on this screen, Sellars proves himself to be a major contributor to this work. The solo singers are also exceptionally good. Particularly outstanding was the work of Willard White, an African-American bass-baritone who had many marvelous moments. One which began with the words”and I will shake the Heavens” particularly stands out. Also superb were Dawn Upshaw and Helen Hunt Lieberson, divas familiar to many in the audience from their performances at the Metropolitan Opera. One of the oddities of El Niño was, as far as I could tell, the actual birth of Christ occurs during the intermission, which is funny. Of the young men singing the three kings (the countertenors), the first seemed to have a little bit of trouble with some of the intervals he was called upon to perform. Still, it was nice to see countertenors used in contemporary music. Possessing female voices in male bodies, their use is usually restricted to Renaissance or Baroque music written for castrati singers. At one point, the chorus sings”In the day of the great slaughter when the towers fall.” The 9/11 implications of this line are obvious, but the performance of it in New York City heightened this association. The Chorus was also remarkably adept in this work inasmuch as they were asked not only to sing but to move in a directed fashion. While this is common in opera productions, it is almost unheard of in the performance of oratorios. This was another interesting innovation overseen by Mr. Sellars. There were also a group of dancers who performed choreographed movements. Was this an oblique reference to the so-called ballet-operas of the Baroque period?

 

I enjoyed El Niño by John Adams, Peter Sellars, et al. but came away from it unmoved. Would a believer in Christ have come away feeling differently? I cannot say. What could be the role of religious music in the modern world? There may be more unquestioning believers among Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists today than among Christians. There are also new age religious cults which attract a small number of at least temporary believers. One is reminded also of two earlier oratorios from the age of Christian belief. One is Haydn’s beautiful masterpiece The Creation, based on Genesis, and with some of that master composer’s greatest music. If oratorios are to be staged or semi-staged, it would be interesting to see Haydn’s The Creation staged with some attention to the latest discoveries in physics and cosmology. Also potentially interesting, at least intellectually, is an oratorio by Camille Saint-Saens called The Deluge, based on the Biblical story of Noah. I have heard only a short excerpt from this work. Still, it might be interesting to hear and perhaps to see. Staging it might prove difficult, however. Returning to El Niño , I sincerely hope that it receives more performances as it is an interesting attempt to revive an archaic form which, although perhaps antiquated and difficult to suit to contemporary Western realities, has left us with much beautiful vocal music in the past.