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Adelaide Festival

An everyday Messiah

Chris Reid

El Niño, Mark Rogers
El Niño, Mark Rogers

El Niño, the ‘centrepiece’ of Peter Sellars’ 2002 Adelaide Festival, is the product of a collaboration between Sellars and legendary American composer John Adams. El Niño suits Sellars’ concept for the festival—an event of community and cultural interaction, reconciliation and storytelling, whose official opening was a night of Indigenous song and dance in Adelaide’s Victoria Square.

First staged in 2000, the oratorio El Niño recounts the Nativity, the moment from which we count our millennia. Sellars has transferred the Biblical story to a present day Latino setting. In the way Shakespeare productions are often updated, this transfer emphasises the power and timelessness of the story. Building a libretto from the texts of past and present writers, and including fragments from the Apocrypha, suggests all generations and all people own the story. Texts by Hispanic women, such as 17th century Mexican nun and early feminist Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, emphasise women’s perspective. The rich moral tales are cleverly drawn out—how the Infant is born into straitened circumstances, how dependent He is on the enduring faith of those around Him, how fear corrupts the morals of (great) men and provokes violence and oppression. These observations are directly relevant to our present world.

Adams had wanted to write his own Messiah, and this work seems a homage to Handel as much as his own celebration of the Nativity. Formally, El Niño is more than an oratorio, and includes a video, screened above the performers. The audience must follow the action on screen, the surtitles above it, and the complex polyphonies and competing rhythms of Adams’ mesmerising score. This version of El Niño omits the live dancers of the initial concept, but there are dance excerpts on screen.

Sellars’ video grounds the work in a way that no stage performance could. Looking as if shot with a hand-held camera, and set in an apartment, on a beach or in a car, it’s like a silent home movie, making the oratorio immediately accessible. We see a Hispanic Mary and Joseph driving around, cops as guardian angels, the Infant swaddled in a Mickey Mouse blanket, and “Jesus”, dancing, with a streetlight behind Him forming a halo. The movie is not overtly a depiction of the Nativity—these could be any people, and we make the association with the Nativity because of the symbolic content. Do we read more into Biblical tales than is really there? Rather, we should read more into life, which is itself a miracle. The themes, the mythology, are universally applicable.

This production involved Artistic Director Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices—a mixed chorus of 20 or so seated on stage behind the fabulous soloists: Shu-Cheen Yu (soprano), Kirsti Harms (mezzo) and Herbert Perry (baritone), and 3 countertenors. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, occupying the pit, was nicely directed by Alasdair Neale.

El Niño , director Peter Sellars, composer John Adams, director Paul Hillier, Theatre of Voices, Festival Theatre, March 2-6

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 5

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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