A Child of Our Time – John Adams’s En Niño (28 June)

El Niño

Dawn Upshaw (soprano)
Kirsti Harms (soprano)
Willard W White (bass-baritone)

Theatre of Voices [Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings & Steven Rickards (counter-tenors)]
London Voices [director, Terry Edwards]
Adopt the Barbican Youth Choir [music director, Jonathan Gill]

Peter Sellers – Director
Michael Schumacher – Assistant Director / Choreographer / Dancer
Nora Kimball – Choreographer / Dancer

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Adams

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 June, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

And so the Barbican’s much-vaunted (or, if you read the Guardian, much slated) “American Opera Week” has ended. Two performances of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire and two of John Adams’s fourth collaboration with enfant terrible director Peter Sellars, El Niño, performed by the Barbican’s two resident orchestras, both respectively conducted by their composers (Previn with the LSO). Both works were staged, the orchestras making in-roads into the audience (so much so that people at the front were practically in – or rather under – the orchestra with no possibility to see much of the staging, nor the surtitles provided for both operas).

Critical opinion has been harsh on Previn’s Tennessee Williams adaptation. Is there too much bad opera being written in America, as some feel? Does that mean too many have tunes and are popular? 400 years of operatic history is littered with thousands of operas now forgotten. Most great operatic composers have duds behind them. So why should we expect Previn’s first opera to be a masterpiece?

Previn’s is actually a thoroughly competent musical treatment of the play. Because of the strictures set him by Williams’s estate, he had little leeway in properly adapting the text. It is far too literal. Also it means that there can be few if any ensembles. That is the most distinctive aspect about opera – it allows different emotions and opinions to be expressed at the same time; and Previn wasn’t allowed to do it. Streetcar could be the basis of a true operatic masterpiece. What Previn has done is invest it with a memorable musical palette – smoky, hot and steamy, recognisably New Orleans through his precise ear for jazzy rhythms. Derivative, yes – but perhaps that’s why it plays so well with the memory.

Certainly not a disaster, then, although I suspect the piece will be better received when other sopranos get to grips with the central part of Blanche DuBois. Renée Fleming is too contrived – both vocally and dramatically; she certainly didn’t seem to fit in a production with the rounded characters of Rodney Gilfry and Janice Watson as the Kowalskis. One day a soprano, who understands the part and can act, will really make the part of Blanche her own. The prompter was intriguing, clearly visible right beneath the stage, bringing in Fleming and mouthing every single word at her.

I’m supposed to be reviewing El Niño! As has been noted, Adams’s millennial project is not really an opera; Adams himself describes it as a “nativity oratorio”. It is perfectly possible to imagine it given as a concert performance. As one of the co-commissioners of the work (which was premièred in Paris in December 2000), the Barbican Centre reunited most of the original performers for an almost fully staged version, again under Peter Sellars. That original production is available on DVD (as is Streetcar), and the principal difference at the Barbican was that the chorus – the peerless London Voices – were ranged behind the orchestra, just below the stage area. In Paris, they were on stage with Sellars’s trademark hand-gestures. I think London had the best of it, the stage free for just the principals – Dawn Upshaw, Willard W White and the three counter-tenors from Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, all from the original cast. Australian Kirsti Harms (a mezzo who has recently started singing soprano roles) fulfilled the role that Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson originally took. Also, at the end, a children’s choir made up from local schools who have ’adopted the Barbican’ (hence its name). There were two dancers too, again from the original, who personified in movement the angel Gabriel (backed by the counter-tenor trio) and Mary.

Like Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ, Adams and Sellars revisit the conception, birth and infancy of Jesus from the first visit of the angel Gabriel to the flight into Egypt. Interspersed are poems by Latin women, reflecting various themes highlighted by the nativity story. Some are hard-hitting (a lament at the death of young people in the suppression of the Mexican youth revolt in 1968, which commented on Herod’s ’slaughter of the innocents’ for example – all poignant and apt, these form a second level to the narrative structure. Intriguingly, Sellars has fashioned a film, which plays above the stage action for the duration of the piece. It starts, accompanied by Adams at his most glittering, with a series of flashing lights that eventually settle into a Christmas tree while, in broad brushstrokes, the nativity story is re-enacted partly danced and then as re-interpreted as happening in modern day California, Bethlehem becoming a beach on the Pacific coast and Mexico substituting for Egypt in the family’s flight. While I fervently hope that Sellars doesn’t opt to go into cinema, this film was far less annoying than I might have expected, and it worked far, far better than it does on DVD.

There, Peter Maniura’s TV direction rarely allows sight of film and stage action together. Thus full conception and narrative thread is lost. Maybe the DVD could have used split screen technology. I’m glad to have seen it live as I can now piece the work together again from the partial virtues of the DVD.

London did, at least, get a first – Adams conducting his score for the first time (the second performance being reviewed). His relationship with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as ’Artist in Association’ is going from strength-to-strength – he conducted (in orange shirt and white trousers) with as much fervent energy as his music expounds. His remains an eclectic but recognisable musical style that impresses not only by its rhythmic vitality but also its lyrical fecundity. Coupled with a serious subject, intelligently glossed with apposite texts and soaring lyrical lines (notable is his easy use of counter-tenor timbres), El Niño is a score that impresses mightily.

Intriguingly, the surtitles were given both in (American) English and Spanish throughout, which was a laudable and obviously executive decision by the director. Given that America may well be predominantly Spanish speaking within 40 years, it is prescient too.

Dawn Upshaw – in a white dress rather than the plaid shirt of the original production – was eloquent as Mary (a role part-shared with Kirsti Harms), while rich-toned Willard W White essayed both Joseph (visited by the counter-tenors as the three wise men) and Herod, terrifying as he instigates the ritual slaughter of all first-born sons. The children’s choir (regrettably not escaping Sellars’s hand-gesture choreography, but innocent enough not to make this embarrassing) only enters at the end – way past their bedtimes! – as the baby Jesus instructs a palm to bend and offer fruit to an exhausted Mary in the Sinai, and develop, under its roots, an oasis to quench their thirst. Uplifting. However, El Niño does not seek simply to celebrate the events of 2000 years ago, but to raise as many questions as it answers. It is this ambivalence that is true to the cusp of the 20th- and 21st-centuries and speaks directly to us.

The real success of the work is its ingenuity. It tells a well-known story with a modern commentary that enhances the nature of the tale for contemporary audiences. It also creates its own parameters which makes it difficult to classify. Adams and Sellars have been wilier than with their oft-forgotten collaboration, I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, which at the time they insisted was a new form of American opera. Instead, what they had created was a classic American musical, but their insistence that it was the former has probably confined it to the dustbin – which is a great shame because it showed both composer and dramatist at their very best. There should be no such problems with El Niño. This intriguing and, most importantly, moving work should become one of Adams’s major pieces in the standard repertoire, with or without staging.

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