Adams: El niño

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Adams
LABELS: Nonesuch
WORKS: El niño
PERFORMER: Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo-soprano), Willard White (baritone); Theatre of Voices, London Voices, German SO Berlin/Kent Nagano
CATALOGUE NO: 7559-79634-2
John Adams’s most recent major vocal work is not quite an oratorio nor quite an opera, though it was given an ‘operatic’ premiere last December at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Its dedication to Peter Sellars is evidence of a strong theatrical component, so ‘staged oratorio’ is probably the best label for this richly inventive score – perhaps Adams’s masterpiece to date. Though this transplantation of the Nativity story to Hispanic America brings with it the danger of indulgent levels of sanctimoniousness and political correctness, the piece works because of its musical variety – everything from Handel to pop, yet filtered through Adams’s unmistakable voice – and contrasting texts, all held together by the excellent Kent Nagano; Sellars has likened it to a multi-panelled altarpiece, and it certainly works on more levels than the composer’s earthquake docu-opera I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky.

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As a celebration of birth, El niño gives the musical burden to women’s voices. The peerless Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is moving in ‘La anunciación’, and Dawn Upshaw’s bright soprano is ideally suited to the Magnificat. Willard White brings warmth and authority to his contributions. Texts are drawn from biblical sources and a variety of poets, and the powerful and sometimes angry words of the great Mexican writer Rosario Castellanos help to bring contemporary resonance to this remarkable piece.