El Niño arresting in regional premiere
John Adams: El Niño
Kerrie Caldwell (soprano), Leah de Gruyl (mezzo-soprano), Edward Nelson (baritone), Michael Maniaci, Eric Jurenas, Steven Rickards (countertenors)
CCM Chamber Choir and Chorale, Cincinnati Children's Choir, Robyn Lana (director), CCM Philharmonia Orchestra, Earl Rivers (conductor)
John Adams’ oratorio El Niño had its regional premiere in Cincinnati March 2, and it couldn’t have been in better hands. Earl Rivers, director of choral studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, was prime mover and executant, leading ensembles of CCM in a performance that intrigued, touched and pinned one’s ears to the wall. The 2000 oratorio centers on the birth of Jesus, with a frame of reference encompassing the human experience from birth to violent death. The text, sung in English, Spanish and Latin and drawn from a variety of sources, was projected onto a screen over the stage.
Of the six soloists (listed above) all but Steven Rickards are students or alumni of CCM. The 63-piece orchestra included two amplified steel-stringed guitars, piano, sampler, celeste and myriad percussion, including a set of tuned cowbells. What Adams does with this assemblage is magical, all of it superbly realized by the CCM forces.
El Niño means “little boy", and any reference to the cataclysmic storms of the same name is entirely deliberate. The piece begins with Adams’ stereotypical chugging figures and is informed by minimalism, rock, jazz, you name it. The opening chorus, “I Sing of a Maiden”, built to a climactic cut off, followed by soprano Caldwell and the countertenors in “Hail Mary, Gracious!” (from the Wakefield Mystery Plays). This was followed by "La Anunciación" by Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, the first of several texts by Hispanic authors used in the work. A gripping evocation of childbirth, it was sung with deep feeling by mezzo de Gruyl. Caldwell’s Magnificat (from the biblical Gospel of Luke) was softly reverent by contrast.
Like Handel’s Messiah (Adams’ inspiration, he said), El Niño is a mix of choruses and arias, much of it reflecting on the action and without characters as such. A striking exception was “Now She was Sixteen Years Old”, where baritone Nelson voiced Joseph’s anger at finding Mary pregnant. “Joseph’s Dream”, which followed - a beautiful movement for baritone and countertenors in which Joseph is reassured of Mary’s innocence - was colored by English horn. In “Shake the Heavens”, Adams’ deliberate nod to ”Messiah”, Nelson executed some nimble coloratura.
Caldwell and de Gruyl’s "Se habla de Gabriel" (Castellanos), also addressing the rigors of childbirth, was extremely moving, followed by Nelson intoning apocryphal texts about heaven and earth standing still. Part one closed with The Christmas Star" by Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, which also included ecstatic verses by medieval composer/writer Hildegard van Bingen ("O quam preciosa").
Part two opened with de Gruyl’s lovely, reflective “Pues mi Dios ha nacido a penar” (“Because my Lord was born to suffer”) to a text by 17th-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. This portion of the oratorio tells the story of Herod, the Three Wise Men and the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Adams veers into boogie-woogie - flavored with scrapes of guiro - in “When Herod Heard”, given a zesty performance by Nelson and the countertenors. The three countertenors sang Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío’s “The Three Kings”, each in turn, over an atmospheric setting by the orchestra. After a sharp report of chimes, the chorus virtually screamed “And he slew all the children” from the Gospel of Matthew.
“Memorial de Tlatelolco” by Castellanos, recalling the victims of a 1968 demonstration in Mexico City, was an emotional highpoint of the performance. Here Caldwell expressed outrage and tenderness, even a long wail near the end. This was followed powerfully by “In the Day of the Great Slaughter” (from the Book of Isaiah where slashes of violin recalled Bernard Herrmann’s score for the film Psycho.
The oratorio closed with a pair of texts from the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew about miracles performed by the child Jesus. In “A Palm Tree" Jesus causes a tree to bend and offer its fruit to the Holy Family and to produce water from its roots. Here de Gruyl, Nelson and the countertenors were joined by the Cincinnati Children’s Choir in additional verses by Castellanos, ending softly on the word “Poesía” (“a poem”).
Mary Ellyn Hutton