Adams-Sellars ‘El Niño’ Blows Onto Met Stage With Look Of A Fixture

Julia Bullock (aloft) and J’Nai Bridges in the Metropolitan Opera production of John Adams and Peter Sellars’ ‘El Niño’ (Photos by Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera)

NEW YORK — El Niño (the boy, as in Jesus — with no overt reference to the weather system) had its premiere in 2000, with music by John Adams and a collage text by Peter Sellars with major input from Adams. It was first billed as a nativity oratorio, now as an opera-oratorio. Sellars did the original staging at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and then a semi-staging, with the San Francisco Symphony onstage, which traveled widely. CD and DVD sets capture the superb original cast: Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Willard White, with conductor Kent Nagano.

There have been a few other attempted full stagings since. But the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere on April 23 in a lavish production by Lileana Blain-Cruz signaled its arrival into full operatic status.

After Alice Goodman, who wrote the librettos for Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), withdrew into the Anglican priesthood, El Niño represented Sellars’ first attempt at a collage libretto, pasting together diverse texts with greater or lesser connection to one another or even to the story at hand. There were a few subsequent operas and oratorios with such texts, especially Doctor Atomic (2005), and their librettos had their evocative moments. But Adams jettisoned the collage idea (and Sellars as his stage director) with his Antony and Cleopatra (2022), which is coming to the Met next season. He also subjected the previous Girls of the Golden West to his own reshaping.

Davóne Tines in a scene from ‘El Niño’

El Niño has 24 linked scenes or poems. The first act consists of a relatively straightforward depiction of Mary’s pregnancy to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The second act wanders farther afield, especially with Sellars bringing in contemporary Latin-American references.

For instance, a parallel is drawn between Herod’s ordering the murder of all male children and the slaughter of student protestors in Mexico City in 1968. Besides the canonical Bible, there are passages from the New Testament Apocrypha (early Christian writings that didn’t make it into the final text), the 15th-century Wakefield Mystery Plays, Martin Luther, Hildegard von Bingen, and six Latin-American poets, mostly female, sung in Spanish.

For me, the second act becomes confusing, though perhaps I’m doing Sellars an injustice. When heard in December 2023 in Julia Bullock’s stripped-down chamber version at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the confusion was exacerbated by echoey acoustics and inaudible text. It was boring.

The Met’s staging is hardly boring. Indeed, given the lack of texts in the program and the dim lighting of the Met’s seat-back titles against the glare from the stage, it seemed simpler to sit back and let the music and the stage imagery wash over one. But that slights the full experience of what Adams and Sellars intended.

Still, the stage pictures were engrossing, at least until repetition began to dim their impact in the second act. Adam Rigg was credited with the sets, Montana Levi Blanco the costumes, Yi Zhao the lighting, Hannah Wasileski the projections, Marjani Forté-Saunders the choreography, and James Ortiz the puppets, most of them Met debuts and longtime collaborators of Blain-Cruz. For the record, since Adams always uses electronics, Mark Grey was the sound designer.

A scene from the Met production of ‘El Niño’

The cast abounded with debuts, too, and was a testament to diversity: conductor Marin Alsop and nearly all the principal singers (except for J’Nai Bridges) and Blain-Cruz herself. She has been a resident director at Lincoln Center Theater, next door to the Met. She made her Tony-nominated Broadway debut in 2022 with The Skin of Our Teeth, which so impressed Met general manager Peter Gelb that he offered her Missy Mazzoli’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which will have its premiere at the Met in 2026. But then, eager to see her on his stage before then, he engaged her for this El Niño.

The commanding stage picture is full of incident. There is lush, tropical greenery, reflecting Blain-Cruz’s Haitian-Puerto Rican background, and certainly appropriate for the Hispanic sections in the second act. In the back is a hill with cut-outs allowing characters (exotic angels from various cultures) to move among them. Gigantic props fill the stage: a boat, at one point replicated on high; a palm tree that little Jesus causes to bend down with its coconuts, one of his first miracles; a Taymor-esque snake and monster; and countless eyes in what Blain-Cruz describes as vaginal shapes. Not for nothing has her style been called maximalist.

Any difficulty in following the flow of Sellars’ imagination was hardly the fault of the superb singers. Bullock, Bridges, and Davóne Tines are good friends and part of the American Modern Opera Company that presented Bullock’s version of this piece in December. Bullock floated her high notes, Bridges’ mezzo-soprano sounded enveloping, and Tines’ bass-baritone was stentorian.

Julia Bullock (center) and Siman Chung, Key’mon W. Murrah, and Eric Jurenas (above) in a scene from ‘El Niño’

The principals sing multiple roles. Bullock and Bridges are both Mary, attesting to the universality of motherhood. Tines sings Joseph, a voice of God, and a modern-day Latin-American dictator in full military regalia, underneath a huge statue of himself. There are three ethereal countertenors: Key’mon W. Murrah, Siman Chung, and Eric Jurenas, the first two making their Met debuts. They were silver angelic creatures, then the Three Kings.

Alsop’s belated Met debut in the pit was likewise successful. The orchestra began to sound a little ragged in the second act negotiating Adams’ insistent minimalist repetitions. Mostly, though, Alsop led a fierce, committed performance, helping to bind this sprawling score together.

One imagines after more familiarity — and in future seasons — El Niño will become a Met favorite. It has way too much going for it already for its fate to be otherwise.