John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary

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

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

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.

image_description=Stephanie Berge and Patricia Bardon [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith]
product_title=John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Stephanie Berge and Patricia Bardon [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith]