Most critics have been impressed by El Niño, the Nativity oratorio by American composer John Adams premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2000. One can only congratulate the Choral Arts Society of Washington and its director, Norman Scribner, for finally performing the work in this area. The group's earnest but slightly shaky concert on Sunday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, for all that it was welcome, confirmed many of my doubts about the successes and failures of this modern take on a central Christian story. The main problem is in the basic distrust of Christian traditions, which also tainted Peter Sellars' direction of Handel's Theodora. Central Biblical texts relating the Nativity narrative are supplemented, brilliantly, by sincere devotional poetry by Hildegard von Bingen, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and anonymous medieval authors. Texts are also introduced from apocryphal infancy narratives (Gospel of James, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew), stories that are not accepted as scriptural but that nevertheless have informed Catholic tradition, especially through the medium of art.
Truly muddying the waters was the modern poetry (Rosario Castellanos, Gabriela Mistral, Vicente Huidobro -- suggested to Adams by Sellars) that not only has little to do with the story of Christ's birth but actually undermines it. At the Paris premiere, Sellars further subverted the Biblical story with a danced staging and insipid video (the latter relating a parallel account of a contemporary young woman having a baby). The Choral Arts Society laudably reunited that video with Adams' music, if for no better reason than so that we could appreciate just how badly the concept had dated in the period of only eight years. When compared with the timeless appeal of the Nativity story, the Sellars video, with its images of cops staring up at street lamps in parking lots and those perennial show-choir hand movements, became lamentably ridiculous. Either you want to tell the story of Christ's birth or you don't -- make up your mind.
Those reservations aside, El Niño has remarkable musical appeal, much of which came across in this performance. The role of the Evangelist, as far as there really is one, is carried by a trio of amplified countertenors, otherworldly astral triplets who narrate and also incarnate the voices of Gabriel, the wise men, and others. Brian Cummings, Paul Flight, and Steven Rickards made impeccably tuned clustered harmonies together, with a few weaknesses in solo moments. Baritone Christòpheren Nomura sang with ferocious clamor, especially in the I Will Shake the Heavens number, matched unfortunately by the video's images of cops at a burger joint (the words "I'll have a shake!" came to mind). Soprano Sharla Nafziger and mezzo-soprano Leslie Mutchler did just fine (all of the singers were amplified) but paled in comparison to the creators of these parts, Dawn Upshaw and the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
Anne Midgette, Choral Arts Society Weathers 'El Niño' (Washington Post, May 20)
---, 'El Niño's' Transcendent Genre (Washington Post, May 17)
Tim Smith, Choral Arts' concert (Baltimore Sun, May 20)
Much of the score percolated with activity and delightful cross-rhythms, shimmering colors from harp, clanging percussion, celesta, and synthesized sounds (not so much the scratchy, arpeggiated solo violin at the opening of the second half). The brass swelled the sound with vast crescendi, matched by confidently square blocks of sound from the
mostly entirely volunteer chorus (not all of the group's roster of singers). There was audible discomfort in the ensemble in several movements, as particularly complex textures pulled apart at the seams. That sense of labored, anxious struggle was also visible, in Scribner's nervously tapping foot and the furiously nodding heads of the chorus at ragged entrances. The Children's Chorus of Washington, superbly trained by director Joan Gregoryk, waited patiently two hours to perform only in the final number, and they sang with angelic, radiant sound, as the vast orchestral fabric evaporated to just a single guitar.
Members of the Choral Arts Society of Washington will perform next month in a rare program of Liszt's vocal music (part of the meeting of the American Liszt Society) at the National Gallery of Art (June 1, 6:30 pm). The group will also take part in the London Symphony Orchestra's performance of Mahler's eighth symphony, under the baton of Valery Gergiev (June 9 and 10), in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.