“El Nino” and Miracles in Drama

Gabriel appears to Mary

Leaving “El Nino,” I felt a bit baffled as to why the production left me feeling detached appreciation more than anything resembling an emotional response.

John Adams’s opera-oratorio is a musically dense work, filled with impressive orchestration, emotional solos for a soprano, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone, and equally gorgeous material for its chorus and trio of countertenors. It isn’t as if there was a failure in execution, either: the ensemble is remarkable, the orchestra resonant, the conduction by Spoleto Director of Choral Activities Joe Miller strong. And while the opera was not originally written to be staged dramatically, director John La Bouchardiere and company’s choices, from the expressive use of puppets to the fluid transitions from one time period to another, are confident and fully realized.

The opera takes a modern look at the Nativity story, recounting the visitation of Gabriel, the birth of Jesus and his early life, alongside considerations of the miraculous nature of birth, the inevitability of death, and solace through God.

The first half of “El Nino” is primarily from Mary’s perspective, while the second half shifts to highlight the impact of Jesus even from a young age, complete with a set of miracles from Apocryphal books. It’s in the second half of the show where I grew increasingly disengaged with the work while remaining impressed by its staging and score. When I read the excellent review by Yiorgos Vassilandonakis this morning, I found myself agreeing with every bit of praise he had. But I still felt a distance from the production, particularly with the ending, which involves a miracle that’s a logical endpoint thematically but dramatically unsatisfying.

That’s when my issue with “El Nino” hit me: miracles are not dramatically interesting.

I was raised in a Catholic family, and while I don’t practice, I’m fascinated and frequently moved by religious art. And while La Bouchardiere writes in his director’s note that Adams was brought up to believe that biblical stories were metaphors rather than reality, I’m more than willing to accept religious phenomena as reality within the world of a work of art if I’m asked to (it’s no more difficult that accepting that fairies are real in “Peter Pan,” or that gang members spontaneously break out into song and dance in “West Side Story”). With that in mind, I don’t think personal belief systems should be a barrier to accepting “El Nino.”

What is a barrier is my belief in what makes for effective drama: character and action. The greatest dramatic works, from “Hamlet” to “Death of a Salesman,” “Carmen” to “Sweeney Todd,” “Citizen Kane” to “The Godfather,” require characters making active choices that define them and determine the outcome of what happens in the narrative. Even “Oedipus Rex,” in which fate plays an essential role, features Oedipus making the decisions that lead to his downfall.

Miracles, on the other hand, are not about the actions of human beings, but acts of God (or gods) upon people. Spiritually speaking, they inspire awe, emotion, even grand changes in behavior. Dramatically speaking, they turn subjects into objects, leaving people without the ability to stay active in their story. It might be unfair to categorically dismiss the use of miracles in stories, but there’s a reason the term “deus ex machina” is used, more often than not, as a pejorative. In “El Nino,” the active choices of the people in the Nativity story take a backseat to a figure of religious awe (Baby Jesus) capable of solving every conflict they come across in the second act.

Even the religiously themed works that most move me are as rooted in human experience as they are in the miraculous. In spite of its title, “Miracle on 34th Street” showcases characters battling on the behalf of belief rather than letting a higher power take over. “A Christmas Carol” (ghosts, I know, but it’s Christmas and a redemption story in a Christian fashion, so I’m counting it as religious) allows for supernatural forces to take Ebenezer Scrooge through his life, but it’s Scrooge who must choose the path of redemption. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” (a contender for the title of “Most Moving Film Ever Made,” in my book) features an act of God to push Jimmy Stewart towards life again, but Stewart must make that choice, and his economic salvation is as much a belated acknowledgement and repayment for a lifetime of good deeds as it is a miracle.

What about actual biblical stories? To me, the two most moving portraits of Christ are Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” and Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Pasolini, an atheist with a “nostalgia for belief,” presented the biblical characters not as figures acting out a passion play, but as men making decisions, and stressed the radical nature of Jesus’s teachings. Scorsese’s film, meanwhile, was greeted with a firestorm of controversy, but the film makes the intangible tangible by focusing on the anguish and fear Jesus must have felt as he chose to do what he believed was necessary for humanity’s salvation.

There are certainly exceptions to my belief that miracles and deus ex machina are not dramatic. Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” ends with an incredible display of God’s power against forces of evil, while my personal favorite film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” ends on a deus ex machina so unexpected that I dare not reveal it. But the first is specifically about man’s meddling with forces beyond his power, and even here, the death of the villains and salvation of Indiana Jones is determined by respect, or lack thereof, of the power of God and the choice to meddle. And the ending of “Magnolia” is as much postmodern commentary on deus ex machina as it is a moment of unlikely catharsis.

Perhaps this is all beside the point, as “El Nino” was conceived as an opera-oratorio – a concert piece – not as a work of drama. That might mean that a dramatic production of “El Nino,” however skillfully made, is a bit of a folly, a problem of presentation. Or maybe it’s a problem of perspective, and I’m looking at what the work is not rather than what it is. Either way, I walked out of “El Nino” thrilled that so many people were touched by it and disappointed that I wasn’t as well.

Agree or disagree with my take? Were you moved by “El Nino?” I believe any cultural criticism and opinion should be the start of a dialogue, not a monologue, so I’d be glad to hear from those who felt differently and why.

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