John Adams brings ‘El Niño’ to Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Adams, El Niño: Lauren Snouffer (soprano), Josefina Maldonado (mezzo-soprano), Davóne Tines (bass-baritone), Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley (countertenors), Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (director: Lisa Wong), Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus (director: Jennifer Rosza), Cleveland Orchestra / John Adams (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 18.11.2022. (MSJ)

John Adams leads the Cleveland Orchestra, choruses and soloists © Roger Mastroianni

Like any successful artist, John Adams has some works that have proven more popular than others. If El Niño, his 2000 oratorio, lags behind his more familiar works like Harmonielehre (heard at the Cleveland Orchestra’s Blossom Music Festival this summer (review click here) or Scheherazade.2 (review click here in 2018), it is not for lack of invention. The piece contains some of his best writing, but it is in the context of a big work for big forces, including no fewer than three countertenors. It is not every day that such forces are available, thus impeding the likelihood of the piece being performed.

It is not easy, either, to draw a bead on who the target audience is. Adams has called it his Messiah, describing it as an attempt to write a modern Christmas story oratorio, which might well appeal to the populace of a conservative ‘red state’ like Ohio. Yet the texts that Adams and theater director Peter Sellars gathered take a self-consciously progressive stance, making sure to include female points of view. The texts also connect the Christ child (‘El Niño’ in Spanish) to the South American weather phenomenon known by that name, which has become a prominent influence on North American weather in the age of global warming. Many of the texts are, therefore, from South American writers. You thus end up with a work which can be seen, on the surface, to have a decidedly liberal bent to it. That fact, the general unfamiliarity of the work and spreading the potential audience across three performances resulted in a rather light turnout here.

More conceptual hurdles come from the attempt by Adams to make the work cover two commission requests, one for a choral work and one for an opera. The result is an oratorio with some highly operatic moments which can also be performed as a reflective, choral opera. In the end, it is not really one or the other, further reducing its ability to be plugged into the usual programming slots.

Thank goodness Adams brought it anyway. To dismiss El Niño would be a big mistake. It took some time for that realization to emerge as I listened. The first half of the long work (almost two hours, not including intermission) is the more contemplative, oratorical half. I found myself respecting it more than loving it, charmed by the creative choice to hand much of the narrative duty to a trio of countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley), intertwining in beguiling, at times sinister manner. This deployment allowed the countertenors to harmonize, split apart to represent various characters and reunite as a creative reflection of the holy trinity concept.

Bass-baritone Davóne Tines movingly embodied Joseph in this first part with his powerful but rich voice, with Mary being split between warm mezzo Josefina Maldonado and gleaming soprano Lauren Snouffer, who grew in power as her high notes warmed up. Both orchestra and chorus were impressive in the often-difficult writing. The music was classic Adams, not as dissonant as his music has become in recent years, and still dominated by the motoric gestures of minimalism.

By the end of the first half, I had respect for the work, if not exactly love. While nothing was less than well done, it felt self-conscious and discursive. I was afraid the second half might be more of the same.

It wasn’t. The second half of El Niño moves from the dutiful earnestness of the first part into full dramatic narrative. The dramatic element is introduced with the low male voice now portraying a jealous King Herod, intent on killing any potential rival. Tines tore into the Herod material at full tilt, inspired by Adams at his most compelling, both as composer and conductor. The contemplations held at an emotional arm’s length in the first half suddenly became in-your-face fury. The energy did not sag when the countertenor trio gave voice to the Three Kings of lore, with Adams reminding us that they are specifically adoring the Christ child in defiance of Herod’s orders, framing their devotion with intense unease.

When Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is tied to a modern South American poem about the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico, it works seamlessly. In the later pages of the second half, Adams’s musical painting of the miracles of Jesus comes across as a musical equivalent to the South American literary style of magical realism. The appearance for the first time in the work of a chorus of children doesn’t come until the final number, and the effect is moving.

Soprano Lauren Snouffer, John Adams and the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni

Lisa Wong’s Cleveland Orchestra Chorus was in great form, singing in both English and Spanish (texts and translations excellently projected in supertitles above the stage). The Cleveland Children’s Chorus was charming and disarming in their lyrical turn at the end of the piece. Tines was unforgettably ferocious as Herod, but it wasn’t the only star moment: the other was Snouffer’s jaw-dropping tour-de-force in the operatic ‘Memorial de Tlatelolco’, a dramatic aria which hit like a kick to the gut. This is the second time we have heard Snouffer in Cleveland this season (she also soloed in Mahler’s Second, review click here), and she is clearly one to watch. Maldonado was a contrasting balm with her rich vocal lyricism so dark and lovely.

The three countertenors had a hypnotic force when woven together, yet distinctive voices when split apart. Bubeck has a clarion voice, deployed with utter assurance. Cummings flowed with a lighter, brighter coloring while Medley gave the trio a cuddly, shaded warmth. The orchestra was impressive, bringing humanity and divinity to the sometimes-intractable minimalist riffs. Acting concertmaster Peter Otto had a brilliant solo turn with the manic arpeggios that emerge from one lyrical section, perhaps a nod from Adams toward the solo violin music of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, the piece that broke minimalism into the classical mainstream.

The contemplative first half, with its many charming though diffuse moments is, in retrospect, the necessary setup for the operatic second half of El Niño. The payoff is worth the wait, something clearly reflected by the audience, who had applauded rather briefly at the end of the first part but quickly went into an extended cheering ovation after the second. Adams continues to challenge as a composer, but it is good to see him tending to his legacy to make sure some of his less-famous gems also get a hearing.

Next up, how about a Cleveland performance of Fearful Symmetries? Thirty-one years ago, after Adams’s first appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra where he conducted choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer and Harmonielehre, I barged my way into the green room after the concert to ask him if he would bring Fearful Symmetries back some time. At that time, 1991, he was doubtful. ‘Wouldn’t they just run me off if I played that here?’ Adams said, looking around at the ornate trimmings of Severance Hall. And perhaps they would have. Three decades later, Adams is the dean of American composers, and western culture has caught up with his edgy style. Fearful Symmetries is a ferocious (and ultimately transcendent) blend of pop culture satire, minimalist madness and symphonic savvy. It is time for it to be heard here.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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