John Adams’ oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, in exploring Jesus’ crucifixion, is a companion piece to his El Niño of 2000, which describes the nativity. It premiered in America in 2012 and in the United Kingdom last year, but its appearance at the London Coliseum represents the first occasion upon which it has been presented as a fully-staged piece. The creation represents a partnership between Adams and his long-time collaborator, director Peter Sellars, and it is clear that they developed their vision for the work together, based largely upon shared beliefs and values.
The Gospel ultimately describes the passion and resurrection of Christ, but spends Act I (Adams describes them as acts rather than parts) exploring the resurrection of Lazarus. This ensures that the moment of death is framed on either side by images of rebirth, and emphasises that the message of the passion is universal. Questions of capital punishment and how we should treat the poor are as relevant today as they were in biblical times. To underscore this point the oratorio is told through a series of scenes that flit between ancient Jerusalem and the modern day. For example, the first scene occurs in a modern day jail with a woman shrieking from drug withdrawal, while Act II features a police raid.
The irony is that when Sellars stages, for example, The St Matthew Passion he has the scope to consider what Bach really meant by it, and how we perceive it today, to create something that builds on the original. That is harder to do, however, when he was jointly responsible for a work in the first place. This does not mean that as Adams and he created it they never considered that it could be presented in a variety of forms. It does, however, feel as if Sellars is attempting to build on a vision that he has already fulfilled.
Indeed, the original oratorio possesses dramatic elements anyway. The three principal characters, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Lazarus, already have many of their thoughts and emotions expressed physically by dancers. In the oratorio version all of the drama takes place on two small platforms at the front of the relevant concert hall’s stage. These are remarkably similar to the (reinforced) cardboard boxes that grace the Coliseum stage, but whereas in the oratorio the majority of the space is occupied by the orchestra, here there is not always much else to fill it. In particular, although the chorus don colourful, unorthodox clothes and contribute hand gestures and other actions, they both dress, and offer up, more or less the same in the oratorio version. They might do a little more in absolute terms here, but this is outweighed by the loss of innovation in seeing a choir behave as one would not normally expect it to in an oratorio.
The designs are by George Tsypin, responsible for the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics as well as the Mariinsky Ring Cycle and the stage hints at some form of compound by having barbed wire fences run down either side. With the aid of James F. Ingalls’ lighting the area carries an air of intrigue, as it is bathed in cool yellows, greens and reds, and images of various parts of Jesus’s wounded body appear on the backdrop. The set remains static throughout, and the type of movement that works so well when presented on small blocks at the front of an orchestral stage struggles to fill this much larger area.
There are exceptions to this rule, and the second half of Act I works especially well as Lazarus’ resurrection is portrayed by dancer Parinay Mehra sliding and writhing under a transparent canvas that runs across the entire stage. Lazarus’ aria in which he urges the living to give praise is accompanied by some quite astounding body popping from flex dancer Banks, with his movements really working as one with the music. This section is also the one time when the typically eight or ten singers and dancers on stage create movements and tableaux that do not feel swamped, and yet still carry a certain air of calm and control by having space surround them.
Once Jesus has been crucified in Act II, however, there is an enormous period in which there is hardly anything to witness other than figures gazing in lament. This is not a problem in the oratorio because with the orchestra centre stage we can focus on the incredible score as we would at any concert. In contrast, what we see here is not enough to hold our attention and although the music is exactly the same, the experience still suffers. A concert performance of an opera can be preferable to a poorly staged version, because of what it allows us to concentrate on, and the same principle applies here.
The cast, however, is undoubtedly superb. Patricia Bardon brings sublime sensitivity to the role of Mary Magdalene while Meredith Arwady’s Martha hints at burden and anguish in every note that she sings. As Lazarus, Russell Thomas reveals a brilliantly strong tenor that is both sumptuous and edgy, and his ‘Batter My Heart’ style aria at the end of Act I is an undoubted highlight of the evening. The countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley are on top form as the Seraphim who act like a Greek chorus, while the dancing from Banks, Stephanie Berge, Ingrid Mackinnon and Parinay Mehra is highly accomplished.
Notwithstanding the above points, the brilliance of Adams’ score does ultimately shine through, and it is conducted superbly by Joana Carneiro on her ENO debut. While, however, The Gospel According to the Other Mary really expands the parameters of the oratorio form, it fails to meet those of the Coliseum stage.