Christian Reif conducted John Adams’s Christmas oratorio “El Niño” inside the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Met Cloisers (Photo credit: Primo Artists)
John Adams and David Lang: Masters of the Modern Holiday Oratorio
By Joshua Barone
The New York Times
December 23, 2018
As part of the soprano Julia Bullock’s yearlong residency with the museum, “El Niño” came to the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Met Cloisters on Friday in the program “Nativity Reconsidered”. This was the premiere of a new version of the work, trimmed by an hour and arranged (by Preben Antonsen, with contributions by Chad Cannon and Christian Reif) for four singers and a small ensemble, conducted by Mr. Reif.
Such a small scale may sound nothing like “El Niño,” a sweeping, nearly two-hour Nativity oratorio written for vocal soloists, a trio of countertenors, a full orchestra and choir, and a children’s chorus. In her program notes for the Met, Ms. Bullock called it one of the greatest collaborations of Mr. Adams and Peter Sellars, who compiled the libretto’s text and directed the work’s staged premiere in 2000.
I’d tend to agree with Ms. Bullock. The daunting “El Niño” doesn’t get performed often, which is a shame because it may be the peak of Mr. Adams and Mr. Sellars’s partnership: the awesome choral and orchestral writing of “Nixon in China,”and a poignant found-text libretto that shows a restraint lacking in later operas like “Doctor Atomic” and “Girls of the Golden West.”
The abbreviated “El Niño,” however, showcases just a slice of the work’s greatness. Gone are the choruses and some of the most earthshaking instrumental passages. What remains are about a dozen of the oratorio’s more meditative and lyrical numbers that dramatically streamline the Nativity story.
Some of the sections were spoken where they used to be sung, giving Friday’s performance the feel of a Catholic Mass’s readings and responses. The concert began with Ms. Bullock, standing under an apse depicting the Archangel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, reciting an English translation of Rosaria Castellanos’s poem “La Anunciación” over a cello drone. Joined by the mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges, she sang “Se habla de Gabriel,” a melodic duet with a coda by the bass-baritone Davoné Tines.
With these three singers, “El Niño” was in safe hands. So they were well equipped to navigate Mr. Adams’s vocal music: its exquisite and enveloping lyricism, but also the way it treats syllables as musical notes to be repeated and rearranged, creating an entire breathless passage from a single word. (The fourth soloist was the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.)
Ms. Bullock put together the concert with help from the formidable American Modern Opera Company which supplied instrumentalists. (She is a member, as are Mr. Tines and Mr. Costanzo.) While “El Niño” reclaims the Nativity story for women — shifting the focus to Mary and motherhood, and incorporating texts by female poets from Latin America — Ms. Bullock went a step further by bringing the piece, and performers of color, to a space typically associated with European history and power.
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