Peter Sellars, long-time directorial collaborator with John Adams on his dramatic works, is also the librettist on this production of The gospel according to the other Mary, in as much as the choice of Biblical texts interspersed with predominantly 20th century poetry is his. What jars just slightly is that English National Opera billed this production as the world premiere staging, whereas the 2012 blurb on the Los Angeles Philharmonic website clearly states, “A stage production of this oratorio will premiere in March 2013 in Los Angeles” followed by a tour under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel which was brought to the Barbican last year. On that basis, the performance I attended on Friday night wasn’t even the British premiere. There isn’t much to be gained on arguing there is a difference between staged and semi-staged, but as one of my esteemed fellow critics has pointed out, the question of whether the work has gained anything in a transition from semi- to fully-staged remains debatable.
It is no ‘ordinary’ oratorio in this presentation: so much of the emotion inherent in the music is expressed through dance and to some extent through action, that one might be tempted to describe it as a multimedia performance – except that the addition of any kind of video to an already busy production would have been entirely redundant. So let’s call it a “muli-artform” oratorio.
Listening to interviews with the director and composer, it is quite clear that Mr Sellars’ mission is to stimulate philanthropy through art. Mr Adams’ response to this vision is a belief that, as far as the average audience for new opera is concerned, Mr Sellars is preaching to the converted. I think that is probably true of the American audiences to whom Mr Sellars’ work speaks. He has been accused of courting controversy; the recent protests over The Met’s staging of The Death of Klinghoffer are offered in evidence, but surely it shouldn’t be considered a crime to address impenetrable dilemmas through the medium of art. It would be meaningless for a drama about the Middle East to portray only daily life in Israel.
In The gospel according to the other Mary, the Sellars/Adams team purports to portray the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection from the perspective of the women involved. That would indeed have been a fascinating perspective, but this oratorio offers a whole host of other political agendas. Mary Magdalene, instead of being a woman of loose morals, is a recovering heroin addict. (Presumably, in a post-Pill world promiscuity no longer carries the burden of shame.) Whilst she does sing of the pain of her mutilated arms, she also sings about sex – at least from the perspective of an abuse victim seeking revenge: “I will drive boys to smash empty bottles on their brows, I will pull them right out of their skins.” Patricia Bardon as Mary is asked not only to hold the audience’s attention vocally, but her constant physical interaction with all the dancers (regardless of gender) strongly suggests her Mary is indeed still very much in touch with herself as a sexual being. If you have worked with recovering addicts, you will know a former heroine user presents as emotionally flat and drained, not with the sensual flamboyance of Mary M with her massage unguents and seductive hair.
The set designs by George Tsypin put us in some kind of compound with barbed wire, out of which Mary and her sister Martha appear to be operating a soup kitchen. The chorus represents the oppressed migrant workers who attempt to cross the Mexican border in desperate hope of a new life in the USA. To put a spanner in the works, many of the most striking poems are by Louise Erdrich, an American poet of Native American ancestry who is described as the leading light of the second Native American Renaissance. Against this backdrop of modern life in southern USA, complete with the night-time sound of frogs and a reference to “suckholes” (which I am pleased to report are riverside holes in mud in Texas which can suck you down, not the Australian slang definition of the word meaning sycophant) we are shown the death and resurrection of Lazarus in Act 1 and the death and resurrection of Christ in Act 2.
We are watching a miraculous narrative from Palestine in 33AD, played out against a backdrop of modern-day oppressed peoples. We are listening (with the exception of brief quotes from Hildegard von Bingen) to words written by four North American women, each of whom had the courage to speak out against oppression. Alongside Ms Erdrich with her representation of Native American peoples we have June Jordan, a black feminist writer who was involved in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Rosario Castellanos who actively educated the indigenous peoples of Chiapas in southern Mexico and bemoaned Mexican women’s lack of choice and finally Dorothy Day, who worked amongst the American poor with the zeal of a socialist reformer.
That to my ears is a whole raft of political and social agendas with which to juggle. Instead of coming away with any kind of insight into the minds of Mary Magdalene and/or Mary the Mother of God, I felt there was a significant disconnect between the reality of losing a member of your family in the most brutal way imaginable as punishment for a political cause and the sort of socio-political causes which the chosen poems represent.
Setting aside my reservations of what was achieved here, there were many things about The gospel according to the other Mary which I found really engaging. First of all I thought this was a wondrous score from John Adams. What he delivered was a couple of stunning choruses (especially the settings of the Castellanos poetry) which I hope, like those from Nixon in China will be perpetuated as self-contained works. I agree he is one of the finest if not the finest living writer for modern dance, an absolute gift for Mr Sellars who it appears took full responsibility for the choreography. Sellars’ choice of words is a melting pot of different political agendas; John Adams’ score transcends politics and takes the listener through a myriad of brightly-coloured snapshots, symbolising different worlds by his highly creative use of sonorities such as soaring violins, pizzicato basses, a trio of two oboes and cor anglais, muted horns, cimbalom and struck cowbells.
The contributions made by the dancers, one of whom, Banks, is apparently a “flex dancer” with a nice line in slow-motion walking used to great effect, was almost more powerful than that of the singers. I would particularly like to commend Parinay Mehra whose portrayals of Lazarus reincarnate and Christ crucified were for me the greatest dramatic moments of the piece. His portrayal of agony paradoxically suffused with serenity was mind-blowing. The idea of depicting Lazarus’ spirit reversing the process of an out-of-body experience, creeping back to the inert corpse, was directorial genius.
Ms Bardon embodied this modern Mary with committed singing and convincing movement. Meredith Arwady as Martha has a wonderful and extraordinary contralto, quite visceral at its deepest extent. Russell Thomas has a fine tenor as well as star quality. It’s not his fault that with the opening line of “Tell me how is this night different,” I was convinced he was going to give us a snatch of Sondheim. Normally I get excited when the counter-tenor count reaches three or greater. Full marks to the trio of Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley for their seraphic form of bitonal close harmony. But this time the director’s gestures made them so camp, it was hard not to laugh. One of Mr Sellars’ trademarks is singing with hand signals. It can have a beauty and simplicity, but there were times here, for example when the ENO Chorus was required to run on the spot and sing with jazz hands, where it owed too much to the “Music and Movement” craze of the 1960s. Once or twice too much multi-tasking came close to taking the chorus out of synch with the beat.
Not so in the pit. The Orchestra of English National Opera sounded polished and about as near as one can expect British players to get to an American-style delivery of slick rhythms. That is largely down to the clear and “mistressful” conducting of Joanna Carneiro. That’s my kind of woman: a consummate professional who changes society’s attitudes to women in power by shining example, rather than making a song and dance about it.
Photos: ENO/Richard Hubert Smith