If George Benjamin’s new opera Written on Skin, currently appearing at the Royal Opera House, might represent the pared down English face of ‘minimalism’, John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, now enjoying its European premiere, certainly reveals the genre in all of its full-blown American glory.
It is not, however, merely the score that makes this new oratorio create such an engaging and overwhelming experience. Just as important are the piece’s messages, and the manner in which the staging conveys them.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary, in describing Jesus’ crucifixion, is a companion piece to Adams’ oratorio El Niño of 2000, which describes the nativity. It represents a partnership with Adams’ long-time collaborator, director Peter Sellars, and it is clear that they developed their vision for the piece together, based largely on 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 drama takes place on two small platforms in front of the orchestra. There are only three principal characters – Mary, Martha and Lazarus – and their thoughts and emotions are sometimes expressed physically through dancers (Michael Schumacher, Anani Sanouvi and Troy Ogilvie). If this sounds similar to Kasper Holten’s Eugene Onegin recently seen at the Royal Opera House, there is one important difference. In Tchaikovsky’s work Holten split emotions between a singer and dancer that were originally intended to be presented as a coherent whole. Here, Adams and Sellars actually designed the piece to have emotions rendered in a variety of ways, and, as a result, the end product is more successful.
On the evening, the vocal performances were superb. Kelley O’Connor as Mary combined in her rich mezzo-soprano voice both sensitivity and an appropriate directness. As Martha, Tamara Mumford’s own mezzo-soprano reached staggering depths, her sound always tinged with the right amount of resonance. As Lazarus, Russell Thomas’ strong yet sumptuous tenor was blessed with a ‘gospel’ edge that was entirely suited to making the proclamations required in the role, and his own ‘Batter My Heart’ style aria at the end of Act I was particularly captivating.
Jesus never physically appeared, although Lazarus essentially adopted his role, and three countertenors (the marvellous Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley) formed a Greek chorus that described his actions. All principals were dressed in modern clothes, as were the chorus who inhabited a higher platform behind the orchestra. Their highly accomplished sound included one chorus consisting entirely of howling and wailing with no words, and choreographed physical gestures. These were relatively stylised at the start of the evening, but then developed so that by Act II they were forcing their fellow man to the ground, wrapping blankets around themselves to represent the destitute, and jeering Jesus on his road to Calvary. Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic with his trademark combination of precision, flair and insight, as well as, it would seem, a brilliant understanding of Adams’ score.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk