NEW YORK — El Niño: Nativity Reconsidered drew a large crowd to Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Dec. 21 at the end of a five-city U.S. tour. Produced by AMOC, the American Modern Opera Company, this condensed version of John Adams and Peter Sellars’ 2-1/2-hour Nativity opera-oratorio, arranged for reduced forces by music director Christian Reif, was conceived as an alternate version of the Christmas story.
Adams and Sellars’ original, full-length work, then titled, El Niño, premiered in 2000 under the baton of Kent Nagano at Paris’ Théatre du Châtelet staged with video and dancers. As an oratorio, it is less frequently performed than the composer’s so-called “CNN” operas, based on news events, but it shares with those staged works the recognizable Adams sound and a certain political sensibility — a “woke” Christmas Oratorio, if you will.
Soprano Julia Bullock introduced this iteration of the work as part of her 2018-19 residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it was first performed at the Museum’s Cloisters in uptown Manhattan. In an introductory video, Bullock explained, “When I first had the idea of …turning this 2-1/2-hour work into an hour and 10 minutes, it was really to enable as many people to experience this piece that I fell in love with as much as possible… I think El Niño helps us to look at some of the most extraordinary moments of life…in a very direct, intimate, and concentrated way.” Bullock was drawn to the work by the inclusive nature of the lyrics chosen by Sellars, which alternate Biblical passages with poetry by women and Latinx writers, in English and Spanish, to tell the Nativity story from a more diverse point of view than the usual (white male) narrators.
The original 24 movements, in two acts, were reduced to 10, retaining the Nativity story while streamlining the commentary. The orchestra was reduced to 25 players and the children’s choir eliminated. Zack Winokur’s direction relied primarily on lighting effects (designed by Christopher Gilmore) to enhance the drama inherent in the music.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to provide an informed review of the score because press seating, about a third of the way back in the huge narthex, only confirmed the severe limitations of the cathedral as a place to hear music. Although Bullock imagined a more intimate setting for the work than a large theater, the vast and echoing cathedral space was anything but intimate, even with video screens for the folks seated in the back. Skillful sound design by Rick Jacobsohn ensured that the singers — all of them miked, including the chorus — were clearly audible, and careful diction made the projected texts unnecessary. But instrumental textures were severely compromised. As Bullock read the opening text, the resonance of the space gradually reinforced an opening drone, which was at first almost inaudible. Precisely timed lighting provided visual demarcation of the sections, often matching a sudden flood of light with a strong musical attack, slowly dimming to return audience focus to the soloists. The occasional instrumental obbligato — a guitar, an oboe — emerged from the orchestral soup as counterpoint to a vocal solo. But for much of the piece, the orchestral writing felt like a distraction because one had to strain to hear it.
Still, the music was recognizably Adams. In the more vigorous moments, urgent pulsation reminiscent of Nixon in China (1987) and Doctor Atomic (2005) underlines the Holy Family’s perilous situation. But more than in their operas, Adams and Sellars linger over the poetry, in which Biblical passages (primarily the King James version) alternate with modern meditations on birth, faith, violence against the innocent, and miracles. I had never been more viscerally aware of the dangers of the Holy Family’s journey, underlined by the Latin poetry (rendered in English or Spanish) and the musical tension.
Especially given the acoustical issues of the space, it was best to focus on the voices, which were excellent and well matched. Skillfully amplified, the four soloists implied the different dramatis personae of the narration without explicit character assignments. Familiarity with the story shifted a listener’s focus on the unrolling of the plot to the sounds and the implications of the poetry.
Bullock’s smoke-tinged soprano soared with gleaming clarity and plumbed her lower range with potency; her commitment to the words came across with extraordinary directness. The charismatic bass-baritone Davóne Tines contributed power and a sense of danger, whether reading or singing (a brief moment of excessive room echo was quickly corrected, attesting to the expert sound engineering). Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was compelling as always, though his big solo, a narration by the three Kings, had clearly been written for three different voices, not all of which matched his instrument.
Guest artist Jasmin White was a wonderful surprise. This stunning young contralto is a member of the Volksoper Wien Opera Studio; the singer’s impressive voice scales soprano heights with ease and power, and along a booming (but never crude) chest voice is rich and penetrating. Duets between White and Bullock were particularly alluring, so well matched were they in sound color and expressive intensity.
All four soloists, as well as a splendid ensemble of 16 from the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, delivered the compelling texts with extraordinary clarity; every singer had a story to tell, and conveyed it with urgency. Timbres were clear and pleasing, with just enough vibrato. Best of all were the duets, with voices intertwined wondrously. The final movement, commentary on an apocryphal account of the Infant’s first miracle, tapered in the final phrases with a soft, gently dissonant repetition of “poesia.” A hush lingered in the cathedral before enthusiastic applause broke the spell.
The 2018 Met Museum performance is available to watch here. The full-length version of El Niño will have a seven-performance run at the Metropolitan Opera April 23-May 17, with Bullock and Tines reprising their parts. For information and tickets go here.