By Richard P. Townsend
John Adams’ most recent music continues to underscore his place as one of today’s most important composers, as work after new work demonstrates not only his musical significance and sophistication but his ability to capture and hold the attention of the listening public. He combines musical relevance and incisive narrative with accessibility of musical language to produce compositions that are at once contemporary and timeless. His newest work—the opera/oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary which was first introduced last year—is the latest evidence of this. Combined with director Peter Sellar’s intensely simple yet powerful staging, in turn given its world premiere at Disney Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on the 7th March 2013, those of us in the audience that evening recognized how aptly Sellars visualized it. The orchestra continues to perform the Adams oratorio in the Sellars production on its current tour to London, Lucerne, Paris and New York City.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary is described by the composer himself as a “Passion Oratorio” and by others as an “opera-oratorio.” In point of fact it combines both musical forms which is a fitting allusion to its complex origins and the concurrent development of opera at the turn of the 17th century. Oratorio—usually non-staged religious music drama with soloists and chorus—came into its own in early 18th-century Rome where opera was papally prohibited, perforce taking on a more operatic flair. It was there George Frideric Handel arrived in 1707 and where he wrote the first two of his almost thirty oratorios, Messiah not least among them. Handel was not only influenced by the Italian form, but by his indigenous tradition of the monumental Germanic choral passion oratorio, one which would culminate with J.S. Bach and his St. Matthew Passion (1727). These two pillars of the oratorio form—J.S. Bach and George Frideric Handel—are both referenced in Adams’ Gospel in its structural rigor and its richness of drama and sound. Sellars, Adams’ longtime collaborator, has himself become deservedly famous for his interpretations of both Handel operas and staged Handel oratorios (and recently Bach’s Matthew Passion). Most notable is his landmark production of Handel’s late oratorio Theodora in 1996 at Glyndebourne, which the director set during the 1990-91 Gulf War. Likewise, Adams composed an earlier opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), based on the Achille Lauro terrorism attack, which reprises the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and itself references Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. Adams’ earlier assay on the oratorio—El Niño (2000), presented in both staged and concert oratorio versions—is Gospel’s immediate predecessor.
To return to Adams’ Gospel, the “Other Mary” referred to in the work’s title conflates Mary, sister of Martha of Bethany with Mary Magdalene, one of Christ’s closest followers (and she herself reflexively a conflation of a number of figures found throughout the Gospels, including a prostitute). Here—as is true throughout the work—I believe the composer is interested in these “different” Marys in the sense of representing the facets of one person, as readily as Adams manipulates time, moving effortlessly from antiquity to the present day. Gustavo Dudamel—who conducted the 2012 premiere—and the Philharmonic are at home with this score, and it spun out as naturally as one would expect from a conductor and an orchestra who have absolute mastery over the idiom and this particular work. Dudamel shepherded the piece to its conclusion with complete asssurance and humility, so very much in keeping with Sellar’s compassionate vision of Adams’ score.
Act I opens—as it would in a Bach oratorio—with a monumental choral setting (“Howl ye…”) powerful in impact and bathing the audience in sound as the chorus—massed on a raised platform behind the orchestra—was bathed in dramatic red light. Early on, three counter-tenors (superbly sang by Daniel Brubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley) appear as narrators, reminding one of the three “genii” sung by boy trebles in Mozart’s Magic Flute or even more to the point, the three angels who appear to Abraham in Genesis and whom in Christian tradition prefigure the Trinity. Regardless, these holy figures’ collective purity of tone matched their music.
Act I’s first truly dramatic incident—counterbalance to Christ’s death and resurrection in Act II—is the death of Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus. Christ arrives too late to heal him of his illness. Ominous sounds from the strings accompany the creepy raising of Lazarus from the dead, whose corpse as is noted, reeks. Sellars has paired the singing actors with dancing alter egos, one of whom here pantomimes giving birth—or re-birth in this case—to illustrate the process of resurrection. Adams and Sellars impart a slightly horrific, unnatural feel to the scene rather than the expected glorious encounter, allowing us to imagine what a voyage back from death, Eurydice-like, could be.
The dancers are quite simply amazing. Sellars’ emotive choreography for them heartrendingly amplifies the text the singers deliver. The two male dancers, Michael Schumacher and Anani Sanouvi, are remarkable. In the first act’s fifth scene (“Supper at Bethany”), the newly re-minted Lazarus, sung by clarion-voiced tenor Russell Thomas, is shadowed by Sanouvi in his aria sung in the throes of the Holy Spirit. Sanouvi’s dance is primal—appropriately almost zombie-like—and his jerky, sexual movement is echoed in the wild scherzo-style passage played by the orchestra.
Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor created the role of Mary Magdalene (all the singers from the 2012 premiere reprise their roles here) and she sang here with great depth and emotion, most movingly perhaps her aria that accompanies as she anoints and wipe’s Jesus’ feet. The devastating words “I’m walking out/my face a dustpan/my body stiff as a new broom/I will drive boys to smash empty bottles on their brows/It is the old way that girls/get even with their fathers–/by wrecking their bodies on other men,” allude both to her own troubled sexual history and of women everywhere throughout time.
The first act closes with Christ at Passover—this one being the Last Supper—the scene staged as a soup kitchen. Despite its poetry and aptness, both the action and music sag. Critics noted a year ago that Adams’ score needed editing, which was certainly my impression of his nonetheless brilliant opera Doctor Atomic. While I cannot comment on the effect of any changes, not having attended the music’s world premiere in May 2012, others report that the score has been edited and revised (although not appreciably shortened). It may still warrant more revision.
Social consciousness looms even larger in the second act as Martha (ably sung by Tamara Mumford) ruminates over the brutalization of women in the labor movement and César Chávez and Dolores Huerta negotiate with the Teamsters as simultaneously Christ is presented to Pilate in parallel.
With that the oratorio returns to its more typical Passion format with Scene 3 set at Golgotha—the Place of the Skull—where Jesus is to be crucified. En route dancers Schumacher and Sanouvi act out Christ’s journey, taking turns slinging one another over their backs, pacing with agonizing steps back and forth across the simple box upon which throughout the performance they are mainly situated. Their sheer physicality was stupendous, as one lifted the other—inert, lifeless—over their shoulders like the cross Christ bore over his. This was quite possibly the pinnacle of the evening, filled with tragedy, pathos, and yet earthy and sexual. It was the Via Dolorosa as a danced duet—surely no one has ever conceived of it quite this way until Sellars.
The third scene had opened with the chorus spookily muttering over the orchestra. This put me in mind of the LA Philharmonic’s West Coast premiere two months earlier of Peter Eötvös’ 2004 opera Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner’s epic AIDS drama. In that work Eötvös also uses a trio of singers to great effect. In that case they are seated within the orchestra, enunciating the characters’ thoughts as a babbling stream of consciousness. The effect was textured and torturous and gives some insight into these two large-scale operatic works composed only ten years apart. Eötvös’ opera is a classic example of late 20th-century avant-garde European composition: acerbic, dissonant, yet with occasional gossamer-spun phrases. It speaks the musical language of György Ligeti (Eötvös’ fellow Hungarian) and Pierre Boulez. On the other hand, Adams’ score comes across as immediately accessible, naturally comfortable in its own skin, replete with gentle dissonances and driving Minimalist rhythms of Adams’ colleagues Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Both Eötvös and Adams’ works are musically sophisticated, but I can’t help but wonder if the more approachable (and performable?) Adams score with its juicy, textured orchestra and soaring lyric vocal lines will stand the test of time more surely.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary culminates with the next scene as the rising music—increasingly frightening and cacophonous—depicts Christ dying on the cross and the world plunged into darkness. The ensuing entombment scene is much quieter, but dirge-like, with the music playing in a minor key highlighted by eerie sounding Shostakovich-like woodwinds.
Dunya Ramicova’s simple, contemporary costumes firmly locate the work in the present day. They are far more effective than her contradictory designs for Sellars’ recent production of Vivaldi’s Griselda at Santa Fe Opera in 2011 (for which production, interestingly, Sellars’ molded the female title role into a Christ-like figure for her suffering and forbearance). While Adams’ music—at once intimate and epic—is triumphant, this “opera-oratorio” truly comes to life through Sellars’ humane production. Adams and Sellars—the latter like his friend and collaborator famed video artist Bill Viola—transform ancient stories and iconographies, making them as real for our own time as they were in theirs.
At the end of The Gospel According to the Other Mary the tension of the long night before Jesus’ resurrection is relieved by the exquisite nocturnal music of recorded frog songs interpolated into the score. The oratorio then calmly closes with Mary—at first mistaking Him for a gardener—recognizing the resurrected Jesus, who calls her name softly…“Mary.”