Thursday, August 28, 2014


A video opera that tells us a quite famous story: Jesus is being reborn


This opera by John Adams is quite different from what we may expect, though it is in line with The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012), A Flowering Tree (2006) and On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), these operas where John Adams is concerned by spiritual heritage within several cultures. We won’t be surprised by the use of Spanish, since he did use it in some other works. We are dealing here with one fundamental mythologized story of the Western Christian civilization, the birth of Jesus.

What is most surprising is that it was premiered in Paris for Christmas 2000. Surprising because Paris is not exactly the capital city of American culture nor of the Catholic Church – or faith – or other Christian affiliations.

You might be surprised by a few twists in the standard story and first of all the fact that the three wise men, the Magi, are sent by Herod to find out about the newborn baby who has been announced as the King of Jews, and the objective is clearly to have him killed. The Magi will betray Herod and worship the baby and apparently not give up his location, so that Herod will have all children in Bethlehem killed but too late because in the meantime Jesus and his parents will have gone to Egypt.

Of course the miraculous supernatural events are clearly reported: the impregnation of Mary by the Holy Spirit. Mary is stated to be 16 which is wrong since she was of age for impregnation and that meant 13 at the time (legal age for girl to get married up to the 18th century in England when it was reasserted by law at the beginning of this very 18th century). The author forgets to tell us she had been given to the Temple as a child by her mother Ann in order for her to weave the Temple’s veil. Mary is said to be married to Joseph before impregnation which is a slight twist with reality since Joseph is a widower who accepts to marry Mary in spite of her state. Joseph here is of course seized by a jealousy fit pacified by a dream.

At the end we have the episode of Jesus ordering the dragons to be peaceful and then the palm tree to bend to provide everyone with refreshing fruit on the way of the family to Egypt. Jesus asserts of course he is a full-grown man then though still swaddled up in his diapers. These supernatural episodes are part of the story, so we can live with them, since after all it is a story.

This opera is great for various other reasons. I am going to give a few.

First of all it is bringing together the stage work of singers (two choruses, three soloists, a soprano, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone, and a set of three countertenors); the stage work of dancers (a set of three, two women and a man); the use of a vast screen over the stage that is being used constantly for the projection of various filmed scenes and sequences. This screen enables the stage to be absolutely empty. The stage production as such has no setting whatsoever. The stage setting is replaced by the film production.

This film production is essential for very many reasons. First of all it enables the opera to have a real setting, I mean to have its action projected into a real-life situation. This projecting is all the more effective because the actors and dancers can be filmed in the said situation. Thus they force our eyes and attention to concentrate on the filmed situation and to project the opera into it. Most actors though in the filmed sequences are different from those on the stage. The filmed situations thus introduce desert scenes with enormous rock formations; sea scenes with a beach and even a harbor; city scenes in various places and clearly American with US flags and street fixtures and furniture of various types; a lot of road scenes and particularly the inside of a car with Mary and the infant for example travelling to Egypt. These filmed sequences are identified as a location film and they have eight actors and two musicians of their own. The film thus widens the stage production.

But it also provides the old story with a modern setting: car, a self-service laundry, a kitchen, cops, portable telephones, taking off planes, etc. We are not surprised to find Joseph, Mary and Jesus sitting around some open fire in an urban wasteland area. This is the modern shape of a stable. That also enables the opera to contain a real baby who would not be possible on the stage itself.

The dancing is very important too because it is the way chosen by the stage director to materialize the difficult scenes, particularly the impregnation and the birth. The impregnation is shown essentially by a mixed couple on the screen actually performing, though fully dressed, the sexual act necessary for the event: the fact that it is on the screen makes the illusion of a non-sexual intercourse possible (along with the fully dressed actors who are thus going beyond simple modesty) though obviously shown as an episode of very close and carnal sexual intercourse. The screen dematerializes the sexual dimension of the scene whereas on the stage Mary is singing and more or less contorting herself and twisting on the ground alone. This sequence is heavily loaded with sexual depth but dematerialized as such. Gabriel is a dancer dressed in white on the stage and he is going to be the newborn Jesus on the stage. The two singers who impersonate Mary, the soprano and the mezzo-soprano, join their arms in a big circle, one woman standing on the left and the other on the right and Gabriel impersonating Jesus will be born through this circle. Once again the real event is shown though dematerialized this time in a symbolic way.

The Baritone identified at first as Joseph is going to be used for God, or some kind of surrogate voice for God, and other male characters, among other the narrator, the Evangelist as J.S. Bach would call him in his Passions. The best initiative as for the singers is the triad of countertenors, called Theatre of Voices. They are most of the time used as a small chorus but they may be used individually. They represent either a ternary group that stands for the simple trinity of the Christian mythology and as such do not have individual identities, but they also identify the three wise men later on in the tale and then they will sing separately, one after the other in the name of the three Magi, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar delivering their goods to Jesus, respectively frankincense, myrrh and gold.

One use of the dancers, of one dancer, is the identification of the star, called the Christmas star, as being carried by a girl who is on fire. The dancer is that girl and her dance is he burning up with the light and fire of the star that the Magi are going to follow. What’s more she is going to be both on stage and on the screen.

The film is not the only modernizing element. The use of Spanish is a direct allusion to California and the USA, but in the second part of the opera, the slaughtering of the new-born children ordered by Herod is identified to the Massacre of Tlatelolco that took place on October 2, 1968 in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, Plaza de las Tres Culturas, ten days before the opening of the Mexico Olympic Games, when 30 to 300 students and civilians were killed. That is a very distinctive trait of John Adams productions: his attempt to connect his music with recent events. This is in the line of Nixon in China (1987). This allusion to this particular event is also bringing back to our minds the essential event of the Olympic Games in Mexico, the famous scene of the three Black American athletes saluting on the podium their National Anthem with their raised right fists in the famous Black Panther Party salute. The fact that Joseph is a Black originally Jamaican baritone can help us recall that particular event to our mind.

Some say this was a Christmas Oratorio. We can think it is because of the premiere a few days before Christmas 2000, the first Christmas of the 21st century, but in fact we can also see it as a Nativity Oratorio more in the tradition of European Nativities and less in the tradition of the commercial red-dressed Father Christmas, even if the dominant color is red: the main chorus is dressed in red, the main color of Mary is red and the color red is often used in some scene lighting. The title itself is clearly centered on the child, the boy, the new-born, Jesus and not some pagan Irish or whatever winter solstice celebration.

The last remark has to do with the music. Once again John Adams surprises us since the music is definitely very harmonious and melodious with the singing developing musical sentences that have some length and some rich composition; The rhythmic minimalist hammering we can find in some of his works is not completely absent here but very dramatically used and very fast merged into the main music. That gives to this opera, or oratorio, a very agreeable and light-flowing musical sound that is perfect for some festive celebration of a happy event, even if the massacre of all new-born is included in the celebration. In conclusion I will say it is a real opera because of the video dimension of it and not a simple oratorio that should not show any kind of setting, or dancing, at all in a common concert production.


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