Winter harvest

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 12, 2006

The BSO’s last concert of 2006 was another BSO premiere: John Adams’s nativity oratorio, El Niño. The Spanish title reflects the inclusion by the librettists (Adams and Peter Sellars, who also staged the 2000 premiere in Paris) of poems by some of Latin America’s greatest writers, from the 17th century’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to the 20th century’s Rosario Castellanos, Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, Rubén Darío, and Vicente Huidobro (the last performed in a lovely, lucid translation by Tufts anthropologist, poet, and cultural historian of Somerville David Guss). Passages from the Bible, the Apocrypha, the Wakefield mystery cycle, and Hildegard von Bingen flesh out the story. Unlike Handel’s Messiah, one of Adams’s models, this nativity narrative is largely from Mary’s point of view, emphasizing the pain of childbirth and motherhood.

Much of Adams’s score is minimalist and motoric (also unmemorable and monotonous); some of it is too pretty without being pretty enough. In the Slaughter-of-the-Innocents passage, which uses Castellanos’s poem about the violent suppression of a 1968 student uprising in Mexico City, the music seems predictable and melodramatic. The most colorful writing is for the three annunciatory angelic countertenors, counterparts of the Three Boys who guide and protect the hero in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The best music comes when Adams departs furthest from minimalist chugging.

The original cast members, captured on the CD and DVD of the world premiere, were Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (sublime!), soprano Dawn Upshaw, Jamaican bass-baritone Willard White, and countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Steven Rickards. The BSO had intended to use the stars of the original cast. Beth Clayton, more familiar as a seductress than as a virgin, was called in after Hunt Lieberson died. More recently, Upshaw had to bow out for cancer treatment, and Jessica Rivera, another Adams favorite, was brought in. Hunt Lieberson and Upshaw are hard acts to follow, and I wish I could say their replacements were wonderful; they were earnest and certainly competent, but I heard more vocal strain than in their predecessors’ effortless and eloquent outpouring. Rich-voiced bass Eric Owens, from the original cast of Adams & Sellars’s Doctor Atomic (he also created the title role in Eliot Goldenthal’s Grendel), was better, making Joseph both pompous and gullible and finally quite touching. The three original countertenors were superb, especially as the Three Kings. John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus injected excitement, and the PALS Children’s Chorus, under new director Jennifer Kane, gave one of its sweetest, most confident performances. It’s the children who bring the piece to its quiet close. I thought Kent Nagano, on the DVD and CD, led with more flexibility and intimacy than athletic David Robertson at the BSO, but Robertson’s broad gestures kept the orchestra precise and alert.

I question the BSO’s decision to project supertitles without reprinting the text in the program. Supertitles are fine for opera, when they only help the audience follow the narrative thread. But they don’t provide any sense of a line of verse, or a stanza. Like the arias of a passion or an oratorio, the poems in El Niño are contemplations on the action. They can’t be contemplated when their words are passing by so quickly overhead.

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