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Album Review

El Niño is an ambitious project that could have easily become overblown in execution, but thankfully that is not the case. This warm and sometimes moving oratorio humanizes the Nativity story by emphasizing Mary's perspective and the miracle of birth. The texts are in English, Spanish, and Latin and are based on a variety of sources, including the New Testament Apocrypha and contemporary Latin American poetry. The music also incorporates a wide range of styles and influences, including jazz, show tunes, and Handel's "Messiah," but it coheres under Adams' distinctive rhythmic approach. It begins with the steady repetition of a D minor chord, followed by the introduction of polyrhythms and dissonance, as well as countertenors Brian Cummings and Dan Brubeck. Both of them, as well as the third countertenor, Steven Rickards, give golden performances on this album. The same is true for the three soloists, mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and baritone Willard White, who are all cast in flexible roles. For example, Upshaw sings the role of the Virgin Mary in the second piece, "Hail, Mary, Gracious!" (adapted from The Play of Annunciation from Martial Rose's version of The Wakefield Mystery Plays), and mezzo soprano Lieberson gives a fiery performance in the same role in the third piece, "La Anunciacion," which is based on the poetry of Rosario Castellanos (who is also the source of "Se Habla de Gabriel," "Memorial de Tlatelolco," and "A Palm Tree"). The next three pieces, including "Magnificat" (which features an assured, sensitive performance by Upshaw), draw on St. Luke for their text. White makes his first appearance as Joseph on the seventh piece, "Now She Was Sixteen Years Old," and also appears as Herod later on; he effectively conveys both Joseph's confusion and Herod's anger in his forceful performances. The more reflective second half of this album isn't as immediately accessible as the first, and sometimes suffers from cursory narrative passages, but it also benefits from delicate touches and mostly preserves the emotional power of the first half.

Customer Reviews

A Modern "Messiah"

This beautiful Christmas oratorio is truly one of a kind. El Nino draws text from numerous sources ranging from the pre-Christian prophets to twentieth century Hispanic women writers. The story follows the traditional narrative of the annuciation to Mary, the visit to Elizabeth, the birth and adoration of Jesus, Herod’s massacre of the innocents and the flight into Egypt. The play on words in the title (meaning both "the Christ child" and a phenomenon of nature) is intentional. Modeled on Handel's "Messiah", this work is often forceful and you are constantly aware of the potential climax that it prepares you for. The orchestra creates a wash of sound behind this essentially vocal work and the intelligent instrumentation creates a rich and complex sound (including within it, a number of electronic instruments). Adams' unique use of three countertenors in harmony to portray the Angel Gabriel creates some beautiful moments, especially in 'Hail Mary' and 'the Babe leaped'. This highly theatrical and beautiful work is simply not known well enough. I recommend it highly.


Born: 17 July 1960 in Nashville, TN

Genre: Classical

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Soprano Dawn Upshaw was born July 17, 1960; she first rose to prominence in 1984 after winning the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, and was soon invited to join the studio of the Metropolitan Opera. Upshaw's Met exposure quickly allowed her to assume roles, including Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, and both Susanna and Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro; in 1986 she made her Salzburg Festival debut in Figaro, returning there often in the years to follow for acclaimed...
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