The Gospel According to the Other Mary

Dancers add fire to John Adams's masterly oratorio

The Gospel According to the Other Mary

It seems appropriate that President Obama proposed to grant asylum to five million illegal immigrants just as The Gospel According to the Other Mary received its staged premiere last week at English National Opera. John Adams and Peter Sellars’s oratorio burns with the fury of America’s underclass, the hot, fetid air of Los Angeles’s slums and prisons, the desperation of Mexicans escaping poverty and despotism. Mixing Biblical text with modern writing by revolutionary women, this is a radical Passion from the female standpoint, happening – as Mary Magdalene puts it – in our ‘own quietly explosive, here’.

The cast felt pungently American, too, voices larger-than-life in scale and volume: Martha, the earth-mother, was written for Meredith Arwady, whose visceral, apparently bottomless contralto speaks powerfully of her infinite reserves of compassion. Russell Thomas, as Lazarus, has a tenor of rich, spangled complexity, heard here with a hectic edge in his coruscating reawakening aria, and tantalising glimpses of its pianissimo beauty elsewhere.

Irish mezzo Patricia Bardon (Mary Magdeline) may not be American, but balanced the cast with a searing, sensual intensity: she convinces as a woman on the edge, a recovering addict, split asunder by physical and spiritual conflict. In Adams/Sellars’s provocatively reversed world, deep female voices are contrasted with a trinity of high, chill countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley) who intone the words of Jesus. The ENO chorus delivered their fiendishly demanding part with ardour, if not absolute ease, while Joana Carneiro proved a dynamo in the pit.

So how much did the staging add to a work premiered in concert in 2012? George Tsypin’s stark set of barbed wire and cardboard boxes within a giant sand-coloured tent simultaneously conjures the refugee/prison compound and Biblical location of the libretto. Body parts were projected on to the backdrop to bring us back to the blood-and-guts human sacrifice of the Christian narrative.

Apart from one coup de théâtre, in which Lazarus’s life returns, this could have been in a concert hall, except for four exceptional dancers. As well as enacting the emotional and narrative arc of each singer, they rendered Sellars’s trademark hand-gestures – which interfered messily with Adams’s El Niño – almost redundant: who needs fluttering fingers denoting flames when there’s a man exploding out of his own skin in slow motion?

If the Angel Gabriel appears this advent I very much hope he’s in the shape of Banks, the ‘flex dancer’ playing Gabriel who threatened to steal the show. In apparently spontaneous reaction to the music, he froze, sculpted and unleashed time, creating a hip-hop, muscular enactment of a score that cries out for such big, high-octane, virtuosic physicality. Each grandly-etched gesture drew the ear back to Adams’s richly detailed and dynamic creation, surely one of his most potent achievements to date.

Cast in two monumental parts, each with a ‘resurrection’ at its heart, this is a passion which has absorbed Bach’s own in a string of unerringly-paced arias, choruses, chorales and – for moments of highest drama – gripping orchestral interludes. Tauter, terser, yet more varied than its sweeter, diffuse companion piece El NiñoThe Gospel finds Adams the Maximalist working with an enriched palette, including the scything glint of cimbalon, the punch of electric bass and the gamlean-like sounds of gongs, cowbells and bowed cymbal.

A dancing, folk-like chorus in the first half glitters with cimbalon and guitar, while the keening, wailing of winds as Lazarus emerges dazed from his tomb are stand-out moments in the first half. Tension rises in the second act, in which Adams treads new ground, with a terrifying vision of a militant risen Christ ‘who chops down his own cross’, his depiction of suffering at Golgotha (an inspired chorus of groans and muttering, underpinned by bass trombone and primitive bells), Jesus’s death (a brass chorale worthy of late Stravinsky), and a strange, magical nocturnal that melts into an awakening in the startling sound of real frogs.

If there was any doubt this Gospel was ill-suited to the opera house the final scene dispelled it, leaving an audience humbled, aware of music-history in the making.

John Adams's The Gospel According to the Other Mary is on at English National Opera until 5 December 2014


Picture credit: Richard Hubert Smith

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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