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Rebirth of a Savior in ‘El Nino’

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

John Adams has been a bold maker of music theater. And with Peter Sellars to egg him on in the operas “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Kling-hoffer,” Adams has looked hard and deep into the human psyche and culture, how and why we all have such a difficult time communicating with one another. The Northridge earthquake, in “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky,” is the symbol for a society--in this case Los Angeles--shook up by its diverse and not-yet-integrated cultural mix.

With “El Nino,” which had its first performance in Paris last month as an opera and was given its North American premiere Thursday night at Davies Symphony Hall by the San Francisco Symphony as a semi-staged oratorio, Adams and Sellars now confront the birth of Christ. At this millennial moment, they tell an old story in a new way.

They use modern, multimedia means. Sellars shot a silent film, with eloquent and harsh images of L.A. street life, which runs through the entire performance. There are three principal vocal soloists, three countertenors with smaller parts and three dancers. All are in costume (casual clothes and barefoot), and all enact their roles. The texts come from the Bible, Gnostic sources, the Wakefield Mystery Plays, several Latin American poets and fashionable Medieval composer-mystic Hildegard von Bingen.

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But what is truly modern and new about “El Nino” is its message: that the way to unite a divisive world is to look at the birth of Christ not as a religious miracle but a biological one. Birth itself, Adams and Sellars suggest, invests spiritual power in every individual.

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The other miracle of “El Nino” is the music. Adams’ model for his two-part and nearly two-hour work was Handel’s “Messiah,” with which it shares a mosaic-like approach to narrative and room for contemplation on the meaning of events. But given Adams’ much broader selection of texts, which range over 2000 years, his music must be an even greater unifying force than Handel’s--and so it proves to be. This is Adam’s most powerful and affecting and sublimely assured music.

Though “El Nino” is a vocal work, its soul is in the orchestra, which creates a sort of ocean of sound in which all the elements of the oratorio live. It is often roiling and forceful, always eager for a magnificent climax--the play on words in the title, which means both “the Christ child” and a phenomenon of nature, is intentional. (And indeed, the oratorio blew into town on the crest of an El Nino-sized storm.) The orchestra, its sound rich and complex (with a glittery integration of electronic instruments) was also a conduit for deep and emotional song, as well as a comforting cushion for the singers.

Those singers were America’s finest--Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Willard White. None was assigned specific characters. Sometimes Upshaw and Hunt Lieberson portrayed Mary, and White made a strikingly angry and confused Joseph. Meanwhile, the countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Steven Rickards) and the dancers (Daniela Graca, Nora Kimball and Michael Schumacher) interacted in ever-changing roles.

Not that all of the texts are theatrically specific. Rather they dwell on what it feels like to be a mother, to be a father, to comprehend a miracle in ancient times and in modern times. The two longest and most difficult poems, both by 20th century Mexican writer Rosario Castellanos and sung in Spanish, were set to haunting, inner-directed music, and sung with amazing intensity by Upshaw and Hunt Lieberson.

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As in his last large piece, the orchestral composition “Naive and Sentimental Music,” which was given its premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic two years ago, Adams seemed to put everything he knows into his score. Echoes of “Nixon,” “Klinghoffer” and “Ceiling/Sky” were everywhere. But there is also a musical freshness to “El Nino"--its tunes are catchier, its rhythms spikier, its exuberance more thrilling, its complexities more integrated than anything that has preceded it. The application of big-band jazz, of a rock bass line, of some slashing strings straight out of a Hitchcock soundtrack never sounded self-conscious or like parody but rather like bits of an older culture still useful for a new one.

Kent Nagano conducted, as he had the premiere in Paris. The chorus was that of the San Francisco Symphony. And one of the pleasures of hearing these musicians perform Adams was that they were speaking their own language. He represents the Bay Area, and they have played and sung his music more often than anyone else. The performance, on every level, was superb.

Still, “El Nino,” is more than music. Not everyone in the audience, it was clear at intermission and afterward, wanted theater to invade the concert hall. Sellars’ film brought its own emotional sensibility, showing the sufferings of police and homeless alike. The staging diverted attention among the poetic text (projected under the film), complex music, acting, dancing and an intricate interaction of stage and screen movement. It is a total experience--confusing, overwhelming but also, in its multiple parts, liberating. It allows nothing to be taken for granted, which is, after all, the whole point of a miracle.

* The same forces repeat “El Nino,” tonight at 8 in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, (415) 864-6000 and https://www.sfsymphony.org.


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