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January 15, 2001

'El Niño': With Ears and Eyes in Fierce Competition, the Eyes Have It


Terrence McCarthy/San Francisco Symphony
An abundance of arts join in the San Francisco Symphony's presentation of John Adams's oratorio "El Niño," a new telling of the Nativity.

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 14 — "El Niño," John Adams's celebration of the Nativity, bears so many gifts that the senses stagger under the load. There was Kent Nagano conducting the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall here this weekend; a big chorus in the galleries above and behind them; three dancers; a soprano, mezzo- soprano and bass-baritone; three countertenors; a large screen with silent film playing across it; surtitles to make sure we understood the words; and a host of directors tending to lighting, sound and costumes, with Peter Sellars as their chief executive officer.

No matter where one looked, there were things to do. Musicians played; singers sang; arms waved; feet flashed. Mr. Adams has given us an oratorio as splintered and variegated as the California both he and Mr. Sellars live in, and here the latter has made sure that the eyes will have no rest. The basic conceit is a healthy one: that the birth of Jesus must be re-enacted by each succeeding age. "El Niño" dispenses with camels in the desert, tipsy British carolers in the snow and the images from Currier & Ives. Its Joseph and Mary are Hispanic teenagers seeking shelter on the freeways, public beaches and parking lots of Southern California. (The Madonna of Mr. Sellars's film is astonishingly beautiful.) The second idea of "El Niño," equally healthy, is that the miracle of Jesus' birth is mirrored in the birth of every child or living thing. Or is it the other way around?

The texts of what is essentially an oratorio come from old English, mystery plays, Latin verse, the traditional Gospels and a few tall tales from the Apocrypha. Added to them are poems from Latin America, especially those of the Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos. (Her evocations of pregnancy are of hair-raising beauty.) This is a Nativity not only cast with minority figures but told from the woman's point of view. Mr. Sellars takes his usual role as honorary member and emotional spokesman for the oppressed and the slighted. It must gall him at times to be so showered with attention and success.

Sitting at the center of this imaginative mob scene is some singular music. If only it were easier to get at it. Mr. Adams turns orchestration on its head. I can think of no living composer with so original an ear for the sounds large ensembles can make. Whether it is the industrial ping of his chords, guitar figures against a pointillistic flute, massed pizzicato against mallet percussion, violent jolts of lower brass or shuddering evocations of water, the listener is made to see through every sonority. The sound is both full and open, and the use of amplification so subtly rendered that it is scarcely noticed as such.

Repetitive simplicity underlies Mr. Adams's methods, but Minimalism is only the excuse to set his descriptive imagination in motion. Symmetry is constantly under attack. Especially effective are the fractured and disrupted boogie-woogie patterns in the Herod sequences.

Yet "El Niño" is so thick with event and impression that one scarcely keeps up with it all. In the realm of the senses, the eyes are the tyrants. Eyes demand that we follow the images on the screen, the fluttering of fingers onstage, the two activities often aping each other. The excellent female singers Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson cradle imaginary babies. Willard White blusters impressively both as Joseph and as the marauding Herod.

On screen Wise Men are members of the police, but they are simultaneously recreated onstage by our gesturing countertenors (Daniel Bubeck singing eloquently as Balthazar). Similarly, dancers (Daniela Graça, Nora Kimball and Michael Schumacher) ape their filmed selves in real time. "El Niño," for better or worse, never stops giving; and if we are to grant all these performers, directors, lighters and dancers the attention due them, Mr. Adams's music is reduced to a soundtrack.

And it is more than that, much more. My advice, if the budget permits, is to experience "El Niño" on consecutive nights (as I did on Friday and Saturday). On the second night, put your eyes in your pocket and do not let them escape. Mr. Adams's music deserves no less. Without curbs on the senses, the generosity of "El Niño" will tend to backfire. Would it possibly have given us more by giving us less?

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