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Review: John Adams’s ‘El Niño’ Arrives at the Met in Lush Glory

Review: John Adams’s ‘El Niño’ Arrives at the Met in Lush Glory

On Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Opera continued to play a bit of catch-up with the American composer John Adams.

As a Minimalist of striking imagination and moral probity, Adams has developed a distinct musical style and point of view that have earned him a firm place in the pantheon of American art music over the past 40 years or so. His operas, though, didn’t make it to the Met stage until 2008, when “Doctor Atomic” had its East Coast premiere. “Nixon in China” followed in 2011 and “The Death of Klinghoffer” in 2014, decades after they were written. These are Adams’s so-called CNN operas, with subject matter ripped from headlines and history books. But “El Niño,” a hybrid opera-oratorio from 2000 that had its Met premiere on Tuesday, is a different animal.

Created with the librettist and director Peter Sellars, a frequent collaborator, “El Niño” is an alternative Nativity story, drawing its Spanish, Latin and English texts from the Apocrypha, 20th-century Mexican and South American poetry, a medieval mystery play and, of course, the New Testament. The gospels of James and Pseudo-Matthew, which didn’t make it into the codified Bible, provide some of the most characterful scenes, as when Joseph comes home to find Mary six months pregnant and exclaims irately, “Who did this evil thing in my house and defiled her?”

The air of triumph as the curtain came down on Tuesday night owed as much to the piece as to the director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s vibrant and infectiously exultant production. It was almost as inspiring to see as it was to hear Adams’s marvelous work on the Met’s stage.

It was an evening of firsts. The trailblazing conductor Marin Alsop made her long overdue Met debut to much applause. The singers Julia Bullock and Davóne Tines and most of the creative team also made their first appearances.

Taking a cue from the piece’s Latin flavor, Blain-Cruz trades the Middle Eastern climate of standard biblical depictions for a lushly tropical realm. The set designer Adam Rigg’s storybook framework, with rolling hills and broad-leaved plants that look like cardboard cutouts, achieves grandeur without aloofness. Montana Levi Blanco’s moss-green costumes for the chorus amplify the sense of a thriving natural world, but shocks of hot pink and aquatic blue, particularly in Yi Zhao’s hallucinogenic lighting design for “Shake the Heavens,” recall the iridescent striations of a Mexican serape. The puppet designer James Ortiz’s contributions reach a captivating zenith in the “Christmas Star” finale of Part 1.

Alsop’s musical interpretation beautifully suits the production concept. From the oratorio’s first moments, Adams’s musical signature, a clangorous, silvery sound that accrues impact in orderly ways, is apparent. Rapid eighth notes in the woodwinds, dotted rhythms in the strings, filigrees of guitar and bleating brasses fit together like the gears of a gleaming, churning machine in perfect harmony with itself. Alsop kept the rhythm insistent but chose a slightly slow tempo, loosening the tight weave of the instrumental parts and transforming its mechanical effect into something more organic. Woodwinds breathed, and guitars turned hypnotic. The orchestra flourished.

Freed from geographical and historical specificity, Blain-Cruz elaborated on Mary and Joseph’s migrancy, their journeys through Nazareth, Bethlehem and Egypt as they fled from persecution. Bullock’s Mary migrates by land and J’Nai Bridges’s Mary by sea. (Both singers portray Mary, and Tines portrays both Joseph and Herod.) A discreet conveyor-belt-style mechanism allows Bullock to appear to trudge by foot through distant lands, and Bridges rides through painterly waves on a boat overstuffed with passengers.

The production’s breathtaking images don’t always compensate, though, for the oratorio’s stiltedness. Rather than fight the inaction, Blain-Cruz sometimes ceded the stage to the singers, though she didn’t present a consistent solution for the oratorio’s seesawing between drama and narration.

Bullock was a knowing, self-assured young mother-to-be, who sang with warmth and mystery as she wrestled with the human toll of holy purpose. Her “Magnificat” was beatific, but the middle of her voice could turn shouty, and she struggled above the staff throughout the evening. Bridges, with a voice both voluptuous and statuesque, sang with depth and serenity as she traced the serpentine melody of “La Anunciación.” In Part 2, as a mother who struggles with her son’s terrible destiny, she enveloped her infant in the rich swaddling of her voice.

Bullock and Bridges weren’t the only Marys onstage. Different versions of the Virgin Mother, portrayed by ensemble members, recalled not just Catholic iconography but also Mexican and Indigenous sartorial traditions.

Tines, singing with warm, auburn shades and a beguiling elasticity, portrayed Joseph as an ordinary man who struggles with the holy duty thrust upon him. As Herod, the murderously petty king, Tines donned extravagant military regalia and stone-gray face makeup (which he later removed onstage). His voice drained of color, Tines’s Herod raged in severe displays of vainglory and military might.

The countertenors Key’mon W. Murrah, Siman Chung and Eric Jurenas sang with sumptuous clarity as the Angel Gabriel, the Three Wise Men and the show’s narrators. The chorus brought marvelous texture and point to its role; the righteous indignation of “Memorial De Tlatelolco,” which requires a soprano soloist who can scale tragic heights, felt tempered in Bullock’s rendition, so it fell to the choristers to lament the Slaughter of the Innocents with fire and grandeur in the next number.

The poetry that Adams and Sellars interpolate into the Nativity story reawakens listeners to its emotional depth while keeping its well-known episodes — the Annunciation, the Magnificat and the Adoration of the Magi — in place. Adams and Sellars reinforce the momentousness of the Holy Birth with a Gabriela Mistral poem about a visionary young girl who sets fire to the world, and they transform the Slaughter of the Innocents into a tribute to the students who were murdered in the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968.

Just as moving as those monumental set pieces is Rosario Castellanos’s deeply personal poem “Se Habla de Gabriel,” in which a mother confesses that the act of sacrificing herself to bring a child into the world can be as painful as it is selfless. Bullock and Bridges, who sang together in “Nativity Reconsidered,” a scaled-down version of Adams’s oratorio developed by Bullock that premiered in 2018, forged an effortless intimacy in a duet of haunted conviction.

Bullock will return to the Met next season in Adams’s most recent opera, “Antony and Cleopatra,” which had its world premiere in San Francisco less than two years ago. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, it represents a new direction for Adams, and this time, the Met is ready for it.

El Niño

Through May 17 at the Metropolitan Opera, metopera.org.

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