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A Southern Hemisphere El Niño


March 4, 2002

By Sandra Bowdler


The 2002 Adelaide Festival has had rather a rocky road. After two seasons run by the popular, and somewhat populist, Robyn Archer, the organizers for this year had entrusted the biennial event to the American director and perpetual enfant terrible Peter Sellars. But the match was not to be, and after a very public imbroglio, Sellars resigned and the festival was taken over by the widely respected arts administrator Sue Natrass.


The scant classical music offerings this year were limited to a chamber music program, consisting of excellent music surrounded by a miasma of unparalleled New Age looniness, and a performance of
El Niño by the American composer John Adams.


El Niño premiered in Paris in December 2000, apparently as a tribute to the millennium and as a seasonal Christmas offering. It is probably best described as an oratorio, and it was presented in that fashion here—except that it was accompanied by a film directed by Sellars. The subject matter is the birth of Christ, and birth in general, focusing on a woman's point of view. The texts derive from several sources: the Bible, the New Testament Apocrypha, chunks of the Wakefield Mystery Cycle and a snatch of Hildegard of Bingen, and a number of poems by Latin American women (including Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral and 17th-century scholar Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz). These texts canvas various episodes prior to the Christian Nativity as well as events afterwards including the Flight into Egypt, the Slaughter of the Innocents and the Adoration of the Magi. Also included are some of the apocryphal legends such as Jesus and the dragons, and the palm tree which bent down to allow Mary to sample its fruit.


El Niño is scored for three soloists (soprano, mezzo-soprano and bass-baritone); three countertenors (who often sing together but also assume lesser dramatic personae such as the three individual Magi); chorus and full orchestra. Both the soprano and the mezzo give voice to the persona of the Virgin, while the man sometimes sings Joseph and sometimes a third-person narrator. The music is recognizably John Adams, with a characteristic repeated-chord opening, but it incorporates a range of influences, particularly Latin-accented rhythms. Several of the poems have gorgeously lyrical settings for one or both of the female soloists, accompanied only by strings, and the three countertenors (as the Three Magi) get to sing some beautifully soaring lines. Most striking are several passages where the tempo accelerates and more instruments are gradually brought into play, along with the chorus and sometimes the soloists, building into a crescendo that remind this listener of nothing so much as the finale of a Rossini opera. (The chord changes are, of course, rather different.)


Chinese-born Australian soprano Shu Cheen-Yu sang with admirably crystalline diction and accuracy, though her voice has a tendency to shrillness in the higher registers. Kirsti Harms, a local Adelaide singer, has a wonderfully even mezzo voice, strong on both low and high notes. (Well, it sounded strong, but the venue does have an "acoustical enhancement" system installed for the 1998 Festival's Ring cycle.) Yet, doubtless partly because they were anchored to their music stands, neither woman evinced the intensity of emotion one might have expected, particularly in comparison with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's blistering rendition of the mezzo part in the original Paris performance.


Bass-baritone Herbert Perry, imported from the U.S., brought a compelling authority to bear with his confident, resonant singing. Of the three countertenors who on this occasion made up the Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier's protean American ensemble, Daniel Bubeck (who sang Balthazar) has a particularly lovely voice, but it is amazing how sweet three countertenors singing together can sound.


The orchestra played particularly well under Alasdair Neale, negotiating the variable rhythmic streams and changes of tempo with ease. The State Opera Chorus sounded rather diffuse at first, but showed more signs of togetherness in part two. The children's chorus, which sings at the piece's conclusion, had little to do but did it quite nicely (though they were evidently told to show up at the theater in whatever they happened to be wearing that day).


All this was fine—but there was the film to contend with. Sellars evidently intended to convey a meta-narrative, set in the present day, with California and Mexico somehow representing Judea and Egypt. As a storyline, the film was not helpful. In the first part, it was difficult to work out who was supposed to be Mary and who was supposed to be Elizabeth (Mary's cousin and the mother of John the Baptist), but perhaps one wasn't supposed to. Further on, Mary was clearly a young woman with a pierced lip, and Joseph a young Latino policeman. Nothing much happened—there was a lot of Peter Sellars-style writhing, which can be tolerated from opera singers on a stage but hardly passes muster as dancing in the more objectified medium of film. The only part of all this that appealed was an interlude on a beach depicting the Three Wise Men (represented by two females and a male): their tender regard for the child seemed, for once, to have some emotional relationship with the text and music.


Several people decamped from the audience during the performance, one group after about only ten minutes in. Perhaps they were unprepared for contemporary music in general or John Adams in particular (though his style is generally quite accessible), but one can't help but think that they were driven out by the film. It may seem odd to suggest that interesting music, satisfactorily performed, can be made unbearable by the addition of a further dimension—but the damned thing was interminable and distracting and made the proceedings seem twice as long as they were. One looks forward to a movie-free performance of El Niño some time in the future.


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