LONDON: The Gospel According to the Other Mary
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The Gospel According to the Other Mary

LONDON
English National Opera
11/21/14

John Adams’s passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary had its world premiere at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in May 2012 — as a concert piece. It achieved its first staging on November 21, courtesy of English National Opera at the London Coliseum, and with librettist Peter Sellars directing. The whole project clearly has the composer’s blessing — a few members of the audience stood for Adams at his final curtain-call. But like virtually every other stage production of an oratorio it felt, for much of the time, an halfway house affair, struggling to find apt visual metaphors and accompaniments for a text that was partly a descriptive narrative and partly a poetic contemplation of the issues Sellars — as much as the Bible’s account of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection — chose to highlight: the text is drawn not only from the Old and the New Testament, but also from the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen, as well as a clutch of (mainly female) twentieth-century writers who were to varying degrees politically active — including, amongst others, the journalist Dorothy Day, the Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, the African-American feminist poet June Jordan, and novelist Louise Erdrich.

A plethora of Sellars’s regular theatrical devices nevertheless appeared on stage within George Tsypin’s set, which resembled the perimeter fence of a prison, replete with CCTV cameras. Jesus’s final days were represented in what was effectively a continuous present, with references to modern contemporary political struggles and protests mentioned along the way. Sellars’ ubiquitous (and, some would say, irritating) hand gestures were back, as part of a wide range of individual and choral movement and dance. The singers of the roles of Mary Magdalene (the title character) and Lazarus were doubled by dancers — Stephanie Berge and Parinay Mehra, respectively. Mary, Mother of Jesus was exclusively presented by dancer Ingrid Mackinnon and the flex dancer Banks stole the show on a couple of occasions with his complex, tricksy motions as the Angel Gabriel. 

Vocally, three individual singers made their marks, especially mezzo Patricia Bardon in the title role, a social activist as well as a follower of Jesus, which she presented with a blend of feistiness, anger and care, encompassing all its vocal needs with confidence. Meredith Arwady boomed away in the lower contralto depths as Martha, matching her sister note for note and gesture for gesture. Charismatic tenor Russell Thomas made something utterly memorable out of Lazarus. 

Also employed in Adams and Sellars' 2000 oratorio, El Niño, a striking feature of the work’s scoring is the trio of countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley) who play three Seraphim, and to whom are allotted the major share of the Biblical narrative and the words of Jesus, who has no single physical representative in the piece. Their close-harmony contributions offered some of the most immediately appealing music of the evening. Elsewhere, Adams’ post-minimalist style is at its most subtle and sophisticated, though not, for the most part, at its most memorable. 

The final impression was of a piece that transferred with mixed success from the concert hall that seems its natural home; yet enough, nevertheless, of the evening’s vocal and visual elements proved sufficiently striking to maintain at least some level of interest over the course of the evening. spacer 

GEORGE HALL

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