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Stephanie Berge and Patricia Bardon [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith]
28 Nov 2014

John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary

John Adams and his long-standing collaborator Peter Sellars have described The Gospel According to the Other Mary as a ‘Passion oratorio’.

John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Stephanie Berge and Patricia Bardon [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith]


Designed as a companion piece to their ‘nativity oratorio’, El Niño, which was premiered in 2000, The Gospel lies somewhere between an opera and a concert work; it was presented in concert form in May 2012 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, these performers subsequently travelling to the Barbican Centre in March 2013 for the semi-staged European premiere of the work. This ENO production is billed as the ‘world staged premiere’.

The Gospel presents the story of the Passion through the eyes of those whose tales are usually unheard: Mary Magadalen, her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus. Jesus’s words are quoted by others but Christ himself is neither seen nor heard.

Sellars’ libretto is a mélange: a patchwork of excerpts from the Old and New Testaments mingled with literary and philosophical writings from past and present, including texts and poems of a spiritual leaning by Hildegard of Bingen, Louise Erdrich, Primo Levi, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan and Rubén Darío. Mary and Martha, as they become increasingly engaged in the fight for justice and social change, also recite the journals of the activist and pacifist, Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Often texts are overlain, a soloist declaiming modern poetry while the chorus chant Hildegard of Bingen, for example. Indeed, the interweaving of eras is central to the creators’ endeavour, in the words of Sellars, to ‘set the passion story in the eternal present, in the tradition of sacred art’.

Thus, we move between biblical archetypes and present-day realism, the ‘timelessness’ of the former contrasting with the immediacy of contemporary social and political events such as the Arab Spring. Mary has become a human rights campaigner, fighting for the poor; she and Martha run a hostel for homeless women, the latter spurred in her mission by her own experiences of paternal abuse. Later, Mary and Martha join César Chávez on his 1000-mile march during the United Far Workers’ protest of 1975. In this way, the emotional journey of The Passion, from black despair to hope and promise, is re-enacted in our time.

George Tsypin’s set designs are simple but striking, allowing for fluid transitions between time and place. The rusts and ochres of open stage suggest a desert landscape – Syria? Iraq? – while the barbed wire perimeter fences which loom left and right intimate a prison (search lights beam down aggressively). Or perhaps, the wire is just an emblem of ‘pain’: for the action opens with a female drug addict beating her head against the metal bars, and Mary bewails, ‘they shall be afraid: pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth’. On the back wall, a hand stretches out through the misty textures, reminiscent of religious iconography. It could be the hand of Christ, or that of a modern-day beggar. Subsequently, stricken torsos similarly evoke the pain of medieval Crucifixion images and the suffering of the hungry, afflicted and tormented in the present day.

There are few props and they too straddle different times and places: large cardboard boxes serve variously as ‘blankets’ for the homeless, as an altar table, and as Lazarus’s tomb. James F. Ingalls’ lighting design stuns us with stark blocks of complementary colour, black grid lines again conjuring grim institutional anonymity and restriction.

The principals gave totally committed performances, bringing real human anguish and visceral suffering to the biblical roles. Irish mezzo soprano Patricia Bardon demonstrated her huge versatility, presenting an introverted and dignified Mary, but one also whose emotions at times cannot be contained, bursting out in a wild maelstrom of fury. Bardon gave a strikingly vociferous rendition of Erdrich’s poem ‘Mary Magdalene’; but she also conveyed Mary’s inner grace, and, during an erotic dance with a ‘flex dancer’ identified only as ‘Banks’ (in the programme he is assigned the role of the Angel Gabriel), a contrasting seductiveness. Indeed, Banks’s gliding, waving and twitching, throughout the performance, was the most mesmerising element of the evening.

Meredith Arwady used the considerable depth and reach of her low contralto register to convey Martha’s resolute core, her dark tone and huge vocal power making a tremendous dramatic impact. The role of Lazarus was performed by tenor Russell Thomas, whose heroic tone did not preclude sweetness. On his end of Act 1 ‘aria’, the Passover scene, Thomas sang Primo Levi’s poetry with searing passion and steadfastness: ‘Tell me: how is this night different/ From all other nights?/ How, tell me, is this Passover/ Different from other Passovers?’ As the emotional temperature rose and Thomas’s ardency grew still further, the scene took on an almost Broadway-esque breadth and lyricism, although any hint of kitsch was swept away by grating orchestral postlude in which shrieking brass chords punctured through throbbing strings.

A trio of countertenors – Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley – are cast as ‘Seraphim’ and take on the narrative role played by the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions: they often sing as a trio and here the intensity of the blend timbres evoked an ecclesiastical purity which contrasted strikingly with the grittiness of the surrounding context.

Movement and dance play a large part. Sellars indulges in his trademark choreography of abstract gesturing for the chorus, while Mary and Lazarus have avatars in the form of two dancers; two further dances depict the Virgin Mary and embody abstract feelings and spiritual events, such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The ENO chorus, dressed in motley coloured shirts and overalls (costumes, Gabriel Berry), gave a sterling performance. From the first they were a thrillingly animated mass, crying out a prophecy from Isaiah, ‘Howl ye; for the day of the Lord is at hand’ with vigour and ferocity, and they sustained this concentration throughout the performance.

Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro led the ENO Orchestra with precision and panache. Under her dynamic but economic baton, the orchestra gave a masterly account of the score. Carneiro’s every gesture was well-defined and clear of purpose, and her confidence and control inspired some wonderful instrumental playing.

The problem with The Gospel is that Sellars, in his desire to blend spiritual reflection with political activism, has not yet recognised that less can be more. I found that the constant bombardment of overt political and philosophical ‘messages’ distanced me from the characters and events, and weakened my empathy – which can hardly have been the intended effect. But, the muscular melodic lines, strident timbres and unexpectedly piquant harmonies and progressions of Adams’ score, particularly in the second Act, make one sit up and listen. There is a percussive acerbity to much of the score, the cimbalom featuring heavily alongside side and bass drums, three tam-tams, tuned gongs, chimes, almglocken and glockenspiel. A bass guitar lends an unsettling modern beat. And at the centre of the opera is a ‘Golgotha scene’ of tremendous power and imagination: exploiting the lowest resonances of the basses, bassoons, bass guitar and gongs, Adams suggests a bottom-less well of sound, and through this boom a clarinet wails like a siren. The music seems energised by the need to move between worlds; it never settles, responding continually to situation and sentiment, and thereby guiding the listener through the complex psychological landscape and ever-shifting points-of-view. It’s a shame that Sellars did not fully exploit the considerable dramatic potential of Adams’ language and form, both of which mark a significant move away from the repetitions and transitions of the minimalist idiom more typical of the composer.

I confess to some scepticism when I entered the Coliseum, but I left the auditorium, if not unequivocally convinced, then certainly intrigued and moved.

Claire Seymour

Cast: Mary Magdalene, Patricia Bardon; Martha her sister, Meredith Arwady; Lazarus their brother, Russell Thomas; Seraphim, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley.

Dancers: Angel Gabriel, Banks; Mary, Stephanie Berge; Mary, Mother of Jesus, Ingrid Mackinnon; Lazarus, Parinay Mehra.

Director, Peter Sellars; Conductor, Joana Carneiro; Set designer, George Tsypin; Costume designer, Gabriel Berry; Lighting designer, James F. Ingalls; Sound designer, Mark Gray; English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

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