Explicitly Feminist and Vibrantly Colorful, the Met’s ‘El Niño’ Shines in More Ways Than One

With Davoné Tines plus the dazzle of Blain-Cruz’s production, it feels like Christmas has come very early at the Met.

A woman in blue and a woman in yellow stand back to back on a green set stage full of chorus members
J’Nai Bridges and Julia Bullock (foreground) and Siman Chung, Key’mon W. Murrah, and Eric Jurenas (background). Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

John Adams’ other operas are about history, twentieth-century history to be more exact, and the men at the center of explosive, polarizing events: Oppenheimer, Nixon, Klinghoffer. El Niño, his opera-oratorio conceived with Peter Sellars, is about story. On its basic level, it is a telling of the Christmas story, pieced together from various sources. But it is also about chains of influence, intertextuality, adaptation and juxtaposition.

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Sellars’s libretto is a collage of texts from biblical apocrypha to medieval mystery plays to twentieth-century Spanish-language poetry, to name a few. Soloists double or split their roles. Mary is played both by the soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, often at the same time; the baritone soloist is Joseph, Herod and God—sometimes morphing from one to another with bewildering speed.

El Niño also has more explicitly feminist messaging; Mary here stands in for all mothers, particularly mothers who bring up children under oppressive patriarchal regimes. Her complicated feelings about pregnancy, loss of bodily autonomy, and being made suddenly into a religious icon take up the majority of El Niño’s first act.

Similarly, Herod stands in for all repressive dictators. The massacre of the innocents, which caused Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt, is understood through the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, which left hundreds of high school and university students dead after then-President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz ordered troops to open fire on a crowd of protesters. Mary’s response, a setting of of Rosario Castellano’s poem “Memorial de Tlatelolco” is the emotional center of the second act—an extended response to state violence that connects the mythic with the recent past.

A woman in blue cradles in a woman in brown on an opera stage
Julia Bullock. Evan Zimmerman

In Lileana Blain-Cruz’s new production, these resonances are explored in brilliant colors. Neon pinks, electric blues and buttery vibrant yellows adorn cast members, set pieces and several charming puppets constructed by James Ortiz. It’s whimsical and maximalist; the angel Gabriel (voiced by three countertenors) has glowing neon halos, dragons look like childhood sketches made three-dimensional, and even the most violent scenes are lit up with what can only be described as a sinister rainbow. It evokes dark political realities as if through the eyes of a child, which is both its major strength and its minor flaw. The incursion of mass violence second act feels more jarring for being recovered from so swiftly. This production trades in sheer splendor.  Three sparkling madonnas sway in the background, dressed in pink, gold, and aqua. Actors, puppets and at one point a boat fly through the air. An early scene sees the baritone soloist sing a Handel-inflected aria (think “Thou shalt break them” run through a minimalist filter) as the voice of God, who appears as a multi-eyed puppet creature that resembles a monstrous butterfly, a crowning baby, the eye of Sauron and an engulfing flame all at once. The eyes glow in indigo and magenta, while Yi Zhao bathes the stage in pink and purple light. The effect is nearly blinding. Instead of the expected bright white light, God’s power is turned up to full saturation.

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The drawback to the production’s maximalism is that its resplendence can quickly balloon into the overstuffed. Dozens of flat setpieces and tiered levels leave little space for actors to move, save for a tiny circle center stage, especially when the chorus scenes flood the stage with bodies. Marjani Forté-Saunder’s choreography almost always had something happening in the background. Almost everything, including the most introspective moments, is witnessed by massive crowds, or sung in conjunction with pantomime. At moments, like the brilliant scene of Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth that shows her literally leaping with joy or the trenchant group dance in the second act that embodied the rage and fear of the refugees fleeing from Herod’s regime, the movement offered a fascinating commentary on the story. At others, like a repeated motif of a driven elbow that broke up one of Mary’s solos in the second at, the movement pulled focus.

A woman in blue floats above a stage of chorus members in a colorful opera
Julia Bullock (above) and J’Nai Bridges. Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

Fittingly for a nativity oratorio, the night was also full of debuts. Marin Alsop conducted Adams’s score with a relaxed hand; while there were moments of propulsive motion, Alsop mostly flowed rather than drove, lending El Niño a surprising ease and lightness. This approach was mostly successful, especially in the more mystical and contemplative first act, but as the dramatic tension ratcheted up in the second act, the music never quite caught up to the action.

The trio of counter-tenors who collectively comprise the angel Gabriel (and separately play the three wise men) saw two new faces, Key’mon Murrah and Siman Chung, join Eric Jurenas in soft, shimmering harmony.  Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, the highest-profile returning player, displayed a relaxed radiance to match Alsop’s as one half of the composite Mary character, producing stream after stream of rich, voluptuous sound. Even in climactic moments, Bridges stayed breezy and serene.

In contrast, Julia Bullock, making her long-awaited first appearance, made for an intense other Mary, whom she played as a young woman who feels the full weight of her unsought and miraculous calling and commits herself with fervor to being forged into God’s instrument. Her voice, already uniquely dark for a soprano, comes out without enough shimmer to break through the orchestra. But her power as a dramatic interpreter—the quiet intensity and the palpable grief of her second act aria—made her hard to look away from.

A man stands on a stage surrounded by eerily colorful eyes
Davóne Tines. Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

The night belonged, however, to baritone Davóne Tines, whose debut marked the ascendance of a bonafide star to join the one over Bethlehem. Tines delivered a sizzling performance and displayed a timbral and emotional palette wide enough to match the colors of the production. Each of these three characters had a distinct vocal identity; Joseph’s was suffused with rising warmth; Herod’s was muscular but brittle. God’s was formidable, visceral and pyrotechnic. But all of them also felt contiguous—facets of Tines’s sound instead of separate entities. It was a pitch-perfect debut, dramatically and vocally, and makes a serious case for El Niño’s vocal approach. It asks us to layer Herod, God and Joseph, and see their similarities as well as their differences within the bible story as well as their resonances outside.

El Niño is at the Met through May 17.

Explicitly Feminist and Vibrantly Colorful, the Met’s ‘El Niño’ Shines in More Ways Than One