The Gospel According To The Other Mary: More Must-Hear Than Must-See

By Londonist Last edited 47 months ago
The Gospel According To The Other Mary: More Must-Hear Than Must-See ★★★★☆ 4

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

Listening to a new work by the American composer John Adams, now 67, makes a lot of contemporary classical music sound dull. His Gospel According to The Other Mary, which received its world stage première at English National Opera on 21 November, draws on an eclectic range of influences — from Broadway to Benjamin Britten, American minimalism to Latino and Oriental sound-worlds — to deliver an always interesting and at times very powerful version of Christ’s Passion.

The score is a virtuosic thing, hugely difficult for the orchestral players and singers alike. There were a few moments of hesitation in the chorus on opening night — how anyone knew when to come in is anybody’s guess — but these should fade as the run continues. Otherwise it's a mightily accomplished ensemble performance, led by soloists Patricia Bardon, Meredith Arwady and Russell Thomas, as well as a trio of counter-tenors.

Both women have very low voices, while the men all have very high voices. This is in keeping with the theme of reversing traditional gender roles indicated by the work’s title. Librettist and long-time Adams collaborator Peter Sellars has refashioned the Passion story by focusing on its female protagonists, above all Mary Magdalene, portrayed as passionate and loving — but also volatile to the point of suicidal.

Into women-friendly excerpts from the Bible he weaves texts by mostly female writers. These include 12th century visionary Hildegard von Bingen, Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, Carribean-American poet and activist June Jordan and Native American writer Louise Erdich. The result is an odd mixture of the sacred and profane, blurring time and place. This Passion takes place both two millennia ago and now, both at Golgotha and in a Los Angeles prison.

The main problem with this ENO production, which is directed by Sellars himself, is that Adams’s work — which was first performed in a concert version in 2012 — is not obviously an opera. On the title page of the programme it's called a Passion Oratorio in Two Acts, which is presumably deliberately ambiguous, because oratorios typically have parts rather than acts. Definitions aside, it sometimes lacks the drama required to sustain interest on stage. This is particularly true of the second ‘act’, which revolves around the crucifixion. Far from being emotionally climactic, the crucial Golgotha and Night scenes come across as reflective, with the orchestra playing a key narrative role. That might work better in a church — or at least with the orchestra visible — than it does at the Coliseum.

Dance plays a key role in providing drama where none exists in the libretto. A dancer credited in the programme only as Banks provides bravura displays of muscle and movement. These are dazzling at first, but the effect wears thin. Three other dancers shadow the main singers. The problem with splitting characters between dancers and singers is that it saps the dramatic tension that might otherwise build up between characters. It doesn't help — dramatically at least — that Jesus is played by everybody and nobody. Musically this is a triumph; theatrically it is a mixed bag.

The Gospel According to the Other Mary will be performed at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane WC2, on 25, 27 and 29 November, and 3 and 5 December. Tickets £5-£65. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 23 November 2014