“El Niño” by John Adams: love always transcends pain…

Met Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Tuesday April 23rd, 2024.

Welcome back friends, and welcome once again, to the wonderful Met Opera.

Yay!

And welcome to a gorgeous, imaginative, multilingual, multicultural, and primarily biblical (Blain-Cruz) production, of early 21th century, American opera, mostly bathed in love and faith, from the great John Adams (b. 1947), featuring a mythic and mystical story, (part of) the Nativity story, spanning from the Annunciation to Mary, through Jesus Christ’s birth, ending with the Holy Family’s subsequent flight into Egypt.

Wow.

Welcome to Adams’ (2000), incredibly compelling, despite the seemingly well known, and not an especially easy topic to revisit, “2 parts” opera-oratorio, around the concept of “miracles” (especially the first one, Mary’s holy pregnancy carrying Jesus Christ).

Wow.

Welcome to “El Niño”.

Yay!

Built in 24 separate sections, sang in English, Spanish and Latin, “El Niño”, which in english, means both, “The Boy”, as well as “the natural climate phenomenon” of the same name (marked by warmer than average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator, which occurs on average every 2-7 years), is a unique work.

Yay!

“El Niño” undeniably pays homage to the tradition of sacred works around Jesus Christ’s life, (think Handel’s “Messiah”), and yet develops it with great color, often minimalist melodies, and at times, unusual additional instrumentation (think singing bowls and chimes), as well as includes, multiple text references from different parts of the world, to make it relevant for the modern era.

Wow and yay!

We also get to understand that the Nativity “miracle” in “El Niño” (of Mary having conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit), with its complexities, mysteries, almost magic infused at times, and of course entirely faith driven, includes also pain, and thankfully also, as previously mentioned, loads of love and joy.

Wow.

And in many ways, this miracle birth is relatable to any woman giving birth.

Wow.

Although in my opinion, the opera (“El Niño”) spends too much time on the pain of pregnancy.

That’s ok.

I loved on the other hand, the idea of two Marys, to bring even more richness musically and visually to this character.

Yay!

In addition, in “El Niño”, the Holy Family’s various adventures after Jesus Christ’s iconic and miraculous birth, which scares authorities, can also allude to any deadly repression by tyrants, just as, later on in the story, Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt with their son, finds echoes in various refugees experience.

Wow.

And Adams wrote “El Niño”‘s libretto with Peter Sellars (b. 1957) who also directed the premiere production in 2000. They drew upon a variety of multicultural (mostly British, European and Latin American) religious texts, which definitely gives a broader viewpoint on this story, including many important female voices, and this richness clearly modernizes the Nativity story.

Wow.

From the King James Bible’s Hebrew prophesies of Haggai and Isaiah, to selections from German Benedictine polymath abbess: writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary during the High Middle Ages, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), to the Wakefield Mystery plays (late medieval England) based on the Bible, most likely performed around the Feast of Corpus Christi probably in the town of Wakefield, to Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German priest, theologian, author, hymn writer, professor, and Augustinian friar. Luther was the seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation, and his theological beliefs form the basis of Lutheranism, to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (ca. 1648-95), a colonial Mexican icon, an influential writer, philosopher, composer and poet of the Baroque period, as well as a Hieronymite nun, recognized for both her outstanding writing on women and scholarship, to Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), a Chilean poet-diplomat, educator, and Catholic, member of the Secular Franciscan Order or Third Franciscan order, to Vincente Huidobro (1893-1948), a Chilean poet who promoted the avant-garde literary movement in Chile and was the creator of the literary movement called Creacionismo, Rubén Dario (1867-1916), a Nicaraguan poet who initiated the Spanish-language literary movement known as modernismo, that flourished at the end of the 19th century, and finally, to Rosario Castellanos (1925-74), a Mexican poet and author. She was one of Mexico’s most important literary voices in the last century. Throughout her life, she wrote eloquently about issues of cultural and gender oppression.

Wow.

So, how to summarize simply Adams’ “El Niño”‘s plot?

“El Niño depicts in 2 parts (acts), the destiny of Mary, wife of Joseph, and mother of Jesus Christ, in what is known at the Nativity story.

Wow.

Part 1, tells of the Annunciation (or how the angel Gabriel tells Mary of the miracle to come), to the acceptance by Joseph of the Holy Spirit’s role in Mary’s pregnancy, to the actual birth of Jesus.

Wow.

Part 2, tells of the three wise men (Melchior, Gaspar, Balthasar, all “kings” / astrologers/ scholars of Persia, India, and Arabia,) who arrive in Jerusalem in search of the child. Herod (ruler of Galilee, and who ruled throughout Jesus of Nazareth’s ministry), hearing that a new King of the Jews (Jesus), has been born, sends the wise men to find him, and the 3 wise men present Jesus with gifts representing aspects of Jesus Christ’s future life: gold, myrrh and frankincense: gold, to represent Jesus’ regal nature; myrrh (an embalming oil), to symbolize Jesus’ mortality ; and frankincense (used in worship), to signify (paradoxically), Jesus’ divinity.

Wow.

An angel of the Lord tells Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt, as Herod wants to kill the child.

Oh boy.

Jesus performs additional miracles along the way (dripping water from a palm tree to refresh the travelers), as they travel through the desert, to safety.

Yay!

What to say of “El Niño”‘s production?

That Lileana Blain-Cruz’ primarily biblical, highly whimsical, incredibly vivid, and often joyful production was just awesome, and drew from the entire young, engaged, and multicultural audience, great and mostly, enthusiastic emotions.

Yay!

Filled with lush moving greenery sets, beautiful mountainy landscapes and highly metaphysical skies, and flowing rivers (symbolized by blue draping), the production included as well an incredible and highly imaginative triple depiction of the Angel Gabriel, and of the Holy Spirit, all set by Adam Rigg, including a wonderfully vibrant projection design by Hannah Wasieski, and incredibly beautiful lighting design, by Yi Zhao, all of which which was incredibly lyrical, spiritual, and visibly filled with influence from various great figurative and abstract artists: First, from El Greco (1541-1614), I am thinking of his (1600) “View of Toledo”.

Yay!

So metaphysical.

Yay!

Second, skies painted by Norwegian artists, also came to mind: from Thomas Fearnley (1802-1842), his incredibly symbolic (1803) “Old Birch Tree at The Sognefjord”.

So warm and symbolic.

Yay!

Third, Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944), and his (1893) “Starry night”, was probably also a reference.

Yay!

So dreamlike.

Yay!

Fourth as well, some of the set props and coloring, evoked Van Gogh (1853-1890) and some of his (1888) chair paintings.

Yay!

So poetic.

Yay!

And fifth and finally, the little girl catching the star lighted lamp/puppet evoked as well, to me, Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1900-1943) and his “Petit Prince” (1943) novel and drawings.

Yay!

So surreal and filled with child like awe.

Yay!

I have to mention also, the rest of the terrific and wonderfully imaginative puppetry design by James Ortiz, which was simply spectacular: from the Latino, Arabic, and Asian inspired creatures (oysters, sea shells, algae, featuring an all seing eye), to the fun dragons, these were all a hoot to watch ondulate on stage.

Yay!

The costumes by Montana Levi Blonco, were equally unusual and gorgeous: loved the variety of “Virgin Marys” displayed in particular, and the costumes of the angels.

Just gorgeous.

Yay!

And finally, the wonderful dancing on stage, choreographed by Marjani Forté-Saunders, was incredibly fresh, energetic, alive and beautiful.

Yay!

The only thing I didn’t like as much visually, about the production, was the contemporary Herod episode and statue, half Mozartian commander, half 20th century tyrant, which complexified the time line of this biblical story for me, even though of course, the Nativity myth still resonates with many contemporary events.

That’s ok.

What to say about the conductor and performers?

That the orchestra, and all the singers, under the expert baton of American conductor extraordinaire, the energetic, Marin Alsop, were incredibly vibrant.

Wow and bravo!

And 6 stars, particularly stood out for me:

First, in her Met debut, American soprano, Julia Bullock, was wonderfully convincing as the first Mary. What a stunning and clear voice she has.

Bravo!

Second, celebrated American mezzo-soprano, J’Nai Bridges, was equally convincing as the second Mary. What a stunning and beautiful color her voice displays, and which blended beautifully with the first Mary and the three young and talented countertenors.

Bravo!

Third, Fourth, and Fifth, all in their Met debut, South Korean Countertenor Siman Chung, American Countertenor Eric Jurenas, and American Countertenor Key’mon W. Murray were all incredibly impressive in their various roles of angels, holy spirit, wise men, and at times, like other characters, as narrators.

Wow.

The blended sound they found together as a trio, was pure joy and beauty.

Bravo!

Sixth, in his Met debut, American Bass Baritone, Davóne Tines, was equally convincing, as the energetic, strong, protective and warm Joseph. And what great power in his voice.

Bravo!

So, to sum up my feelings, about Adams’ “El Niño” opera-oratorio admired last Tuesday, in great company, at the Met Opera, with John Adams in attendance as well, what gorgeous and imaginative, minimalist music, including unusual instruments, what a terrific cast, whether Bullock and Bridges (as Mary), Chung, Jurenas, and Murrah (as mystical characters), or Tines (as Joseph), and what a story, to remind everyone, that love always transcends pain.

Yay!

Bravo!

Til next season friends…

Soft…

Fluttering…

Sunny…

Joyful…

Happy…

Loving …

Eternal butterflies …