The Babe Set Free
At its first hearing here (March 2003, at the Old Place), El Niño was warmly received, but with one reservation almost unanimously voiced. John Adams’ musical evocation of the Nativity story is, for most of its two-hour length, powerful and haunting, made especially so by the superb writing for its vocal soloists, including soprano Dawn Upshaw, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and baritone Willard White. The text is a conflation of ancient poetry with modern Hispanic poetry by women writers, including some dealing with topics parallel to the Nativity story — e.g., the massacre of students in Mexico City in 1968 — assembled by Adams with some input from Peter Sellars. The plan also originally included a stage production by Sellars plus a film, in which the participants in the biblical action became teenagers in, possibly, an East L.A. barrio, with Maria and José and their niño pursued into the Mojave by Herod’s cops in a Toyota truck.It was that visual stuff, which also showed up on the DVD conducted by Kent Nagano, that was widely regarded as the one major impediment to a full awareness of the stature of the work — of Adams’ music, and of the literary sensitivity with which the text was assembled from its many sources. “My own Messiah,” Adams called the work at Disney last week in his marvelously congenial pre-concert talk, and that is what the work now, free of its visuals, truly is. You don’t need a movie for Messiah. In the sense of bringing a hearer close to one of civilization’s prime miracles, there are passages in El Niño that have the same power to grab and vibrate the spirit as parallel moments in Handel’s incomparable score. Take, as an ecstatic example, Handel’s “For unto us a Son is born”; set it up against the same scene in the Adams retelling that also undoes me utterly: a setting for full ensemble of the Hildegard von Bingen text as “The Son of God through/Her secret passage/Came forth like the dawn.”Shorn of Sellars’ intellectual overload — which may, for all I know, make a pretty good movie in itself, about teenage love and loss in East L.A. — El Niño takes its place at the very top of Adams’ major scores, a work of overpowering compassion and warmth of emotion. Its text, which bestrides the centuries with historical and emotional similarities — the matchup between Herod’s massacre of the Israelite children and the Mexico City outrage is, of course, especially tricky — is rendered viable by the power and range of Adams’ music. His orchestra is, for him, relatively modest: no trumpets, horns and trombones used in quiet masses, discreet synthesizer, few strings. The music is carried, most of all, by the sheer beauty of the vocal lines. The pure, untroubled wonderment of Dawn Upshaw’s virginal responses to the Annunciating Angel is a sound you want to live with forever.Upshaw and Willard White (now “Sir”) have been with the work from its beginning; Michelle DeYoung has taken over, quite well, since Hunt Lieberson’s illness. Esa-Pekka Salonen, our old Adams hand, quite clearly welcomed the chance to let the work assume its proper aural grandeur. Hearing El Niño at Disney unencumbered — twice, I delightedly report — was like discovering a brand-new masterpiece.
No sooner had the stardust settled from the morning performance of the Adams glory than siege was laid to the Disney stage by the assembled forces of the ineffable P.D.Q. Bach and his scarcely more effable doppelgänger, Peter Schickele. A newly fangled P.D.Q. cantata, “Gott sei dank, dass heute Freitag ist,” figured clamorously among the offerings: “God be thank that today Friday is” (which indeed it was). The Schickele/P.D.Q. team has been at it lo these many decades; everyone I spoke to the other night had his own memories, usually involving Great Entrances: down the high wire, up from the Hollywood Bowl lagoon, the post-deadline tumultuous dash down the center aisle. Friday’s mere mosey out from the wings at concert time seemed a letdown. Okay; muscles get old, and stiff. I might have thought the audience (near-capacity, as usual) would be mostly old-timers reliving memories. The high percentage of teens and college-age kids was encouraging.The muscles have stiffened; the brain has not. A tiny set of Shakespeare settings was ascribed to Schickele, not to P.D.Q., but in reality it had a delightful mix of both: elegant, literate poetic bits (soliloquies from Macbeth, Romeo and Hamlet and Marc Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar musicked to tiny shards of jazz, boogie-woogie, blues, etc., but none lasting more than a sneeze). Two choral pieces — one delectably titled The Art of the Ground Round, the other a clutch of anti-Christmas ditties — nicely underscored the underlying marvel of this whole P.D.Q. Bach business: an unerring sense of humor combined with the musical knowledge to reinvent an imitation, just slightly skewed musical style so close to the victim of its satire that you just never know the which from the what.A supporting orchestra, mostly Philharmonic players, went nicely along with the gags under Joana Carneiro’s direction. Soprano Michèle Eaton, tenor profundo David Düsing and an enchanting small handful of mezzo-soprano named Gian-Carla Tisera made up the vocal contingent.Parsiflage: On December 14, the L.A. Opera fielded a new Parsifal in Robert Wilson’s production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, unannounced beforehand (even to staff members) until the ailing Plácido Domingo took the microphone right at the 6:30 curtain. Gary Lehman was his name, and, for all that, he wasn’t at all bad: slender and youthful, the voice clean and bright, only a little pinched at top. Who is he? His vita lists him as a leading baritone at several opera companies, with no tenor experience listed except that he is working on Parsifal and Siegmund — the Domingo/Wagner repertory, in other words. There’s nothing like starting at the top.

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