'El Niño' by John Adams: The Nativity in Verse and Music
In El Nino, John Adams incorporates biblical and apocryphal texts, together with Latin-American poetry, to tell the nativity story in a way that incorporates element of both opera and oratorio.
PART ONE opens with an anonymous, early English poem introducing Mary as a "matchless maiden," and her son as "like the dew in April that falleth on the grass." We also hear Mary's conversation with the angel Gabriel, the Annunciation as portrayed in verse by the Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, Mary's visit with her sister Elizabeth, and Mary's Magnifcat, as taken from the Gospel of Luke.
Joseph's astonished reaction to Mary's pregnancy is heard in passages from the Apocryphal Gospel of James, along with his dramatic exclamation "I will shake the heavens," in verses from the Hebrew Bible's book of Haggai. Part One ends with "The Christmas star," a setting of words by the acclaimed Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In PART TWO, the story of the Three Kings is heard through verses from the Gospel of Matthew, and a verse by the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario. Herod's slaughter of the innocents is portrayed both through a passage from Matthew and the Rosario Castellanos poem "Memorial de Tlatelolco," which memorializes two separate massacres which took place at that site: one in 1521 when Spaniards slaughtered the Aztecs, and another in 1968 when peaceful protesters were killed by authorities during a demonstration.
El Nino concludes with two stories from the Apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. In one, dragons emerge from a cave to threaten Jesus and his family, but when Jesus confronts the dragons, they back away and worship him.
The oratorio's evocative final number, "A Palm Tree," combines text from Pseudo-Matthew with poetry by Castellanos. Together, they describe the holy family's flight across the desert to Egypt. When Mary grows tired and thirsty they stop to rest in the shade of a palm tree. Mary longs for a taste of its fruit, but Joseph says the tree is too tall, the fruit is out of reach, and he's also worried that without water, they won't be able to continue. Then, commanded by Jesus, the tree bends down so the fruit can be gathered, and at another command from Jesus the tree rises again and cool water flows from its roots, so all can drink, as El Nino ends.