Hmm. Was El Niño an opera? An oratorio? A morality play? Or perhaps an amalgamation of all three? After all, both opera and oratorio — back in the Renaissance and early Baroque eras — gradually grew out of the medieval morality play. Opera eventually became the secular branch of the mother tree, while oratorio preserved the original sacred emphasis. And what we experienced at Friday night’s opening performance of American master John Adams’ El Niño certainly had elements of all three. But as the work unfolded, what soon flashed through my consciousness were my memories of perhaps the most authentic medieval-style morality play left to us: namely the famous Passion Play presented every 10 years at Oberammergau, Germany, a supremely memorable happening that I was blessed to witness when I was stationed in Europe many years ago.
El Niño was restricted to the story of the nativity, but from entirely different perspectives than those from which our own conceptions of the seasonal story arise — and with a Hispanic twist. We get the whole familiar holiday shebang: the annunciation, Joseph’s dream, the journey to Bethlehem, the humble virgin birth, the three kings’ tribute, Herod’s murderous rage, etc. Then there are a few miraculous happenings that the classic Anglo-Saxon visions of the nativity don’t include — like the legends of the tiny Christ-child defending his family from dragons and bidding a palm tree to bow down to refresh his mother Mary with its fruit. Such legends derive from Hispanic traditions that have arisen across the centuries in various corners of the globe.
The libretto — mixing English, Spanish, and Latin — cobbled together by Adams himself and his original collaborator, Peter Sellars — is an artful blend of classic New Testament biblical texts, reflective poetry (mostly in Spanish, by women authors) and connective verbiage that holds everything together. The net result is a fresh take on a beloved tale that everybody knows, but as seen largely through another culture’s eyeglasses.
Opera? We certainly got operatic voices (excellent ones, at that), imaginative staging, costumes, lighting, and all the other trappings that an opera production gets. Oratorio? We got a busy chorus (the ever-amazing Westminster Choir), and “evangelist”-type storytelling roles that were traded off between singers (or groups of them, like the three countertenors). Then there were the “arias,” usually the reflective poetic meditations delivered by the key singers or sometimes actual biblical texts, like the Virgin Mary’s post-annunciation “Magnificat.”
Characterization of the various roles was often puzzling, as it sometimes took awhile to figure out who was singing which one. Actually, the only entities that remained consistently in character were the cunningly manipulated puppets that represented Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, the Christ child, Herod, the three kings, and various animals (donkeys, camels). Each singer or group served different functions throughout, switching from giving voice to the puppet characters to delivering the narrative passages or the poetic meditations. Thus it was nearly impossible to pin any given singer down to a specific character or function.
On the subject of puppets, “Puppetmasters” Steve Tiplady and Sally Todd did an absolutely outstanding job. The various puppeteers (usually several of them for any given puppet) worked their magic in full view of the audience, yet such was their unobtrusive presence and manipulative subtlety that you hardly even noticed them. Part of that was due as well to the ingenious collaboration between costume designer Magali Gerberon and lighting designer Marcus Doshi. The only bright colors (and biblical-era garb) belonged to the puppets, which also got the lion’s share of direct spotlighting. The only other flashes of bright color came from the stained-glass windows to the rear of the broad and expansive set, representing the various stops along the nativity’s pathway, Bethlehem, Egypt, Jerusalem, and so forth.
On the other hand, personal costumes — aided by pervasively dim lighting — came across in subdued, almost monochromatic shades of gray. This also tended to place most of the singers, especially the chorus, into a kind of detached and ghostly plane, at times almost completely separate from the puppet action. Their modern clothing styles seemed to put them into a kind of time-warp limbo, almost as if they were a huddled contemporary mass of people viewing the ancient origins of their faith — and their hope for salvation — across the vast gulf of two millennia.
Indeed, most of the actual people onstage — with their drab and shabby garb, smudged faces and shuffling movements — seemed rather like a crowd of zombies. The set designs by John La Bouchardiere and Ellan Parry fit right into the apparent scheme of mankind suffering in squalid misery; for example, the dirt-strewn floor that covered the stage’s entire expanse. I’m not sure I liked the use of what looked like an old hospital bed for the stable/manger scene and interludes in which images were projected from behind against a long swath of white sheeting, representing the story’s various journeys. It seemed rather clumsily done to me, as opposed to the subtly crafted movements of the puppet donkeys and camels.
Musically, all was well. Instead of a pit, the sonorous Spoleto Festival Orchestra played from a raised platform behind the set, putting them well above both the projected supertitles and the stage action. Conductor Joe Miller obviously knew the score inside out; he did a meticulous job of keeping the music going, and, presumably via the monitor facing the stage from the audience’s front row, synchronizing the chorus and other singers to the lush, minimalist orchestral scoring. Although the rather amorphous nature of the music made it often hard to tell for sure, the chorus’s vocal entrances and cutoffs sounded unified and precise. I was hardly surprised that the composer achieved considerable lyric beauty in this music, as well as real drama, intense emotionality and occasional excitement.
The soloists were uniformly excellent. Soprano Caitlin Lynch and mezzo Erica Brookhyser both own marvelous instruments, and both covered huge ranges of vocal and emotional expression. Likewise for Baritone Mark Walters, the production’s only “conventional” solo male voice. The three countertenors — Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Steven Rickards — not only blended beautifully as an often eerie-sounding vocal trio, but sang their only individual solo roles (as the three kings) very effectively as well.
Even after experiencing it, El Niño defies precise classification, at least to my mind. I know of no other piece of music that’s even remotely like it. But that doesn’t matter, because it spoke eloquently to me from beginning to end. More’s the pity that I can’t see it again since, as in most instances of complex, multi-dimensional art, it’s really hard to fully grasp and appreciate the entire piece in just a single sitting. All I know is that this evening’s music will haunt me for some time to come — and that it will forever change the way I look at Christmas.