Minimalist music, of which John Adams is one of the most famous and most important composers, is a style that this reviewer more appreciates than loves, but hearing/viewing 'El Nino' for the first time left me incredibly impressed.
The second John Adams first-time listen in a month, 'The Death of Klinghoffer' being the first, 'El Nino' (or 'La Nativitie', a more direct and more relevant title) proved to be one of the best opera/oratorio productions personally seen and it certainly stands out among my other first-time viewings/listens. Ranking it with Adams' other work, it is perhaps his best since 'Nixon in China' and also quite possibly one of his best and most accessible works, non-minimalist/non-Adams fans may find themselves changing their minds.
Peter Sellars' 2000 production is captivating in so many ways, and is one of the director's finest hours. It is a great-looking production, nothing looks too sparse and nothing looks too garish, and everything is lit beautifully and atmospherically. The use of symbolism also makes it even more fascinating to watch, it is complex but visually striking and never to me fell into incoherence and it didn't feel heavy-handed or over-used, thankfully was not one of those confused by the symbolism during the "Magnificat". A controversial director, Sellars more than once in his career has had at least one staging touch that doesn't work, but this isn't the case in 'El Nino', a rare case of everything in a Sellars production working and with full impact.
The staging here is some of his most tasteful, his most cohesive, his most emotionally impactful, his most relevant to the drama and his most gripping, as well as some of his boldest (don't think he's ever taken on a braver concept). It is particularly strong in the visually beautiful and beautifully staged rendition of "I Sing of a Maiden", the lighting looks wonderful and is very cleverly used in matching the shifting rhythms in the music. Another instance of great staging of "A Palm Tree", which couldn't have been a more poignant way to end.
'El Nino' is phenomenal musically. The orchestra bring out every colour and nuance of Adams' music, and successfully give the constantly shifting rhythms a positively hypnotic quality. The choir/chorus sing with good balance and tone, and look very engaged with the drama.
Principal singing is a case of running out of superlatives describing how good it is. Dawn Upshaw sings with her usual gorgeous clear as a bell timbre, and is a very sensitive and communicative performer. The late and greatly missed Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sings so warmly and with such individual word painting/colouring and dedication to the text, while dramatically she comes over as very sincere. Willard White's rich bass-baritone voice is as sturdy as oak as always, and in his two roles as Herod and God he is terrifyingly fearsome as the former and benevolently dignified but authoritative as the latter.
Overall, a really fantastic experience and even those who are not usually a fan of Adams or Sellars may find themselves pleasantly surprised here. 10/10 Bethany Cox
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