A Nativity story enriched with Latin American imagery: El Niño at the Met

United StatesUnited States John Adams, El Niño: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera / Marin Alsop (conductor). Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 23.4.2024. (ES-S)

J’Nai Bridges, Julia Bullock and Davóne Tines © Evan Zimmerman/Met Opera

Countertenors – Key’mon W. Murrah, Siman Chung, Eric Jurenas
Soprano – Julia Bullock
Mezzo-soprano – J’Nai Bridges
Baritone – Davóne Tines

Libretto arranged by John Adams and Peter Sellars
Director – Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set designer – Adam Rigg
Costume designer – Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting designer – Yi Zhao
Production designer – Hannah Wasileski
Sound designer – Mark Grey
Puppet designer – James Ortiz
Choreographer – Marjani Forté-Saunders

It was evident from the 2000 premiere in Paris of John Adams’s El Niño that this multifaceted, complex opera-oratorio is the modern equivalent of Baroque sacred works. In their desire to not only describe the miracle of Jesus’s birth and its consequences but to consider the reverberations of the event for our time, Adams and Peter Sellars, his long-time collaborator, used a mixture of sources.

Their libretto blends both Biblical and secular texts in English, Spanish and Latin, ranging from pre-Christianity to the twentieth century. It interweaves King James Bible verses, apocryphal texts, segments from fifteenth-century Wakefield Mystery Plays, a Christmas sermon by Martin Luther and a hymn by Hildegard von Bingen with the poetry of Rosario Castellanos, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Gabriela Mistral, the latter all in Spanish. By granting greater prominence to female and non-English voices, the librettists enhanced the story’s universality. Moreover, by highlighting Mary’s experience, the narrative illuminates the miracle of childbirth in general. The struggles faced by refugee families can be seen as a contemporary echo of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Egypt.

Similar to the multitude of text sources, the musical score is an amalgam of styles ranging from neo-Baroque to jazz and pop, all bearing Adams’s unmistakable signature. His music remains rooted in the minimalism of his youth, but it has evolved in recent decades to become more flexible and dynamically nuanced. The apparent repetitive simplicity of the musical tapestry is constantly pierced by emerging forces in different corners of the orchestra. Additionally, the imaginative use of instrumental combinations such as guitar and flute or pizzicato strings with percussion adds a sense of wonder and surprise.

In her belated Metropolitan Opera debut, conductor Marin Alsop led a large ensemble with a strong hand, skillfully navigating a score that masterfully fuses traditional and contemporary elements. Her approach was characterized by a slightly slower pace, allowing for an easier perception of the details of orchestral coloring. Similarly, her handling of dynamics was always measured, ensuring that climaxes were never overemphasized, and soloists were not overpowered.

In another of the evening’s many debuts, director Lileana Blain-Cruz confidently added a layer of complexity to an already intricate story. While Sellars, in his libretto and staging, was preoccupied with immigrant sufferings, Blain-Cruz, supported by an outstanding creative team – all the members, except costume designer Montana Levi Blanco, making their first contributions for a Met staging – infused the production with a distinctive Latin-American and Caribbean perspective. Adam Rigg’s set, with its receding hills and mixture of plants, was reminiscent of Douanier Rousseau’s fantastic jungles. The skies were ‘painted’ by light master Yi Zhao in warm hues of pink and orange, before becoming cloudy and opaque when Herod’s entrance approaches.

The dragons that the child Jesus confronted towards the end of the performance had the characteristics of Oaxacan alebrijes, the whimsical creatures carved out of copal wood and painted in vibrant colors. Levi Blanco draped the members of the chorus in indistinct, leaf-like robes, but he dressed the three non-singing Marys in resplendent garments that made them look like those crowned statues found in Mexican, Caribbean and indigenous churches. In the same vein, the three-bodied archangel Gabriel is dressed in shining silvery garments, a reminder of the economic and cultural importance of silver for Mexico. Herod, with his chest full of medals and surrounded by shooters and knife-wielders in black, was portrayed as a typical banana-republic dictator.

J’Nai Bridges and Julia Bullock (foreground) with Siman Chung, Key’mon W. Murrah and Eric Jurenas (background) © Evan Zimmerman/Met Opera

If asking soloists to fill multiple roles is very much in the tradition of Baroque oratorios, splitting the same character between multiple singers is not a frequent occurrence. Here, in a probable reference to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, three countertenors are sharing the archangel Gabriel’s role. More importantly, there are two singing Marys: one, portrayed by soprano Julia Bullock, is travelling by land (thus supposed to represent stability and physicality); and the other, personified by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, by water (as a metaphor for emotion, fluidity, spirituality). Truth be told, their two ‘vahanas’ – a kind of treadmill and a crowded boat moving on a river represented by blue rippling cloth – were not exactly imaginative.

Bridges’s Mary was the more stable character. Her firm, deep, melodious voice was especially remarkable in ‘La Annunciación’. Bullock seemed internally conflicted and was a tad hesitant in her Met debut. As the performance unfolded, her voice gradually opened up and reached its full power in ‘In Memory of Tlatelolco’, a poignant rendition of Rosario Castellano’s poem that depicts the brutal repression of the 1968 Mexican students’ revolt.

In another debut, bass-baritone Davóne Tines delivered a confident, flexible performance, skillfully portraying both Joseph’s amazement and Herod’s controlled rage. Countertenors Key’mon W. Murrah, Siman Chung and Eric Jurenas navigated with ease, from embodying the celestial voice of Gabriel to that of the more earthbound Three Kings. The chorus of the Met was, as always, a stable contributor to the success of the performance.

Overall, it was an impressive first night for Adams’s fourth opera to be staged by the Met. However, the visually rich mise-en-scène distracted the audience from fully appreciating the score’s intricacies and unique character. One might want to relive El Niño with eyes shut. It promises to be a rewarding experience.

Edward Sava-Segal

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