Adam: El Niño
Dawn Upshaw, Deutsches Symphonieorchester Berlin, Kent Nagano, Steven Rickards & Willard White
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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.
I disagree with 'john43'. "El Nino" is one of my favorite among all Adams' works, powerfully and movingly evoking the much-told story of the Nativity, interwoven with themes of faith, motherhood, and the miracle of birth. Standout tracks include the jublilant opening, 'I Sing of a Maiden', the meditative 'The Babe Leaped in Her Womb', the spritual 'Magnificat', the melancholy 'Pues Mi Dios Ha Nacido a Penar', the jangly 'Woe Unto Them That Call Evil Evil Good', and, perhaps my favorite, the tintinnabulating 'Dawn Air'. Dawn Upshaw's full, ringing voice is especially radiant, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's husky yet athletic tones perfectly capture the intensely spritual nature of the music, and Willard White's powerful bass seems to demand attention. The chorus, on the other hand, tends to be a bit grating, but Kent Nagano does an excellent job with the orchestra.
Though I must admit that I am a fanatic fan of most of Adam's instrumental music. This like almost everything he has ever done for voice leaves me unmoved and unimpressed. The one exception being "On The Transmigration Of Souls", which quite saddens me as he is without question my favorite living composer. This apparently was wonderful to see due to the dramatic staging, costumes etc.. but none of this of course shows on the CD. The music does not stand alone as it should.
Very, very good...
...Especially from Part I through "Pues mi Dios na hacido a penar", I found it continuously wondrous and compelling as music, drama and idea. The late Ms. Hunt-Lieberson is magnificent. Part II drags but perhaps on repeated hearings I will feel differently about this material.
Born: July 17, 1960 in Nashville, TN
Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s