The resounding echo chamber of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine would be a death knell for a lot of music. Not so El Niño: Nativity Reconsidered. In the run-up to Christmas 2022, the American Modern Opera Company presented an abridged chamber adaptation by Julia Bullock of John Adams‘ opera-oratorio. The drama was pungent as the vaulted space billowed the sound into thunderings and whisperings. The large crowd seemed captivated by Adams’ (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer) compelling, mostly dark score, as arranged and conducted by Christian Reif leading the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, four stellar soloists and a tight chamber orchestra.
El Niño in the Dark
First performed in 2018 at the Met Cloisters, Bullock’s version sharply reduces the work’s length but retains its multicultural reach. Dramatic lighting enhanced the mood of awe appropriate for the nativity story. Leaving the audience mostly in the dark did not permit following along with the libretto, however. It would have been nice to be able to more consciously associate the music with the words.
On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for losing yourself in the music with no distractions.
The libretto, compiled by that great eccentric, Peter Sellars, comes from the Bible, the Apocrypha, and various (mostly female) poets of the Hispanic world. The music comes from the extraordinary composite musical mind of John Adams, who can effortlessly mingle several strains of modernism to create music both challenging and accessible.
A Manger-ful of Top-tier Talent
Coppery-voiced countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo seems to surpass himself every time I hear him. On this occasion he was featured in the “Los Tres Reyes Magos” movement where he displayed his vast range and skill at leaping wild intervals. Bullock’s soprano shone in the “Magnificat” and throughout. Glorious-voiced baritone Davóne Tines, who stunned the arches above with “Shake the Heavens,” and the compelling mezzo-soprano Rachael Wilson, who wrapped a kind of cloaked majesty around “Pues mi Dios ha Nacido a Penar,” rounded out the soloists.
All the while, despite its very small size—which puts extra pressure on each singer—the choir skillfully projected rich color, whether rumbling counterpoint or stabbing an entrance out of the blue in a different key from what had ended just a second before.
Kudos go to Mark Grey for sound design, surely a challenge in such a cavernous space, and to John Torres’ lighting, which added drama and a cinematic fade-in-fade-out effect. However, should this become an annual holiday tradition as Bullock hopes, more could perhaps be done with staging. Singers and musicians stationed at different locations? Video projections? The libretto on a screen? Possibilities abound.
Even as a straightforward concert presentation, this version of El Niño: Nativity Reconsidered was a thrill. It’s music that deserves to be heard more often, and to be presented by top-tier talent as it was here. I hope it does indeed return to St. John the Divine for future Christmases.