It seemed strange to listen to the Christmas story in the middle of August, but that made it all the more stimulating and profound. There was an exciting and evenhanded balance between orchestra, choir and soloists which gave us a fascinating performance.
This year’s Edinburgh International Festival opened in the Usher Hall with a few words from Jonathan Mills, its Director. And then El Niño was performed as a nativity oratorio under the baton of James Conlon who is currently the Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera. It was written by the American composer John Adams, born in 1947, and first performed in Paris in 2000. It can equally well be performed as an opera; it is one of the six operas he has written.
El Niño tells the familiar Christmas story divided into small sections, twenty four in all. Much was in English and easy to follow; there was a translation of the Latin and Spanish in the booklet. The first half of the oratorio concentrates on Mary’s feelings before the birth of her son, Jesus. The second half follows the birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem, Herod’s massacre of all young male children in Bethlehem and the early life of Jesus.
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and members of the National Youth Choir of Scotland Girls Choir, dressed in red, filled the stage and the seating behind. But there was room for the star-studded soloists in front, on one side of the conductor, for Jessica Rivera and Kelley O’Connor and on the other side for Willard White, who had performed in the first production. His voice alone was heard above that of the choir. Further back amongst the orchestra were the three countertenors, Robin Blaze, Paul Flight and William Purefoy.
The texts had been taken not just from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the Authorised Version of the Bible of 1611 but from a Wakefield Mystery Play (performed in the late Middle Ages in Yorkshire), Martin Luther’s Christmas Sermon of 1521, from the Gospel of James in the Apocrypha, Gabriela Mistral’s ‘The Christmas Star’ and a choral setting of ‘O quam presciosa’ by Hildegard von Bingen.
Talking to a friend afterwards we agreed that the conductor really had pulled off a great concert in a very discreet manner.