Thursday, March 28, 2013

John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary

Heard last night the New York premiere of John Adams's Easter oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2011-12). The libretto by Peter Sellars is based on Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament sources, with texts by Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, Primo Levi, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen, and Ruben Dario. Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic beautifully. The Los Angeles Master Chorale sang.

According to the program notes, Adams and Sellars wanted to set the Passion in "the eternal present," like in paintings. This they did in the oratorio by having the biblical Mary and Martha running a house of hospitality for homeless women in Bethany, and, later, having them participate in the farm workers' strike against Teamsters and big growers. Also unusual was the depiction of Mary. Moving away from the conventional image of a "reformed prostitute," the creators made her a complex human being, suicidal, ecstatic, repentant and sensual. Kelley O'Connor sang the part well, but was perhaps too sweet and cultivated a voice. I didn't believe that she would cut herself.

The oratorio was absorbing throughout, but there were certainly high points to it. One of them was the death and resurrection of Lazarus in Act One, which Sellars described as a "rehearsal" for the Passion in Act Two. Not only was the music dramatic and atmospheric, the enactment of Lazarus's resurrection by the two male dancers (Michael Schumacher and Anani Sanouvi) covered in the shroud was eerily believable. At other times, however, I found the dancers redundant, even distracting. At one point, the female dancer (Troy Ogilvie) fluttered her hands by Mary's sides in a cliched imitation of wings. Russell Thomas who sang Lazarus had a deep and rich voice. A musical highlight was his performance of the Primo Levi text about Passover.

Tell me: how is this night
different from all other nights?
Tell me, how is this Passover
different from other Passovers?
Light the light, unbar the door
so that the traveler may enter,
be he Gentile or Jew:
perhaps the prophet is hidden under his rags.
Enter and sit with us,
listen, drink, and sing and celebrate Passover.
Eat the bread of affliction,
lamb, sweet mortar, and bitter herbs.
This is the night of differences,
the night we eat the bread of affliction.
This is the night when we put our elbows on the table,
because the forbidden is prescribed
so that evil may turn into good.
We'll spend the evening telling tales
of age-old wonderful events,
and because of all the wine
the hills will prance like rams.
Tonight the wise, the heathen, the fool, and the child
ask each other questions,
and time changes direction,
today flows back into yesterday,
like a river silted at its mouth.
Each of us has been a slave in Egypt,
has soaked straw with clay and sweat
and crossed the sea with dry feet:
You, too, stranger.
This year in fear and shame,
next year in strength and justice.

The line "Each of us has been a slave in Egypt" was rendered even more powerful as Russell Thomas is African American.

In Act Two, my favorite parts are the farmworkers' strike and the women's all-night prayer, very effectively dramatized by the music and staging; and the spring song of the peepers, with its beautiful bubbling effects. The Golgotha, Night and Burial scenes I experienced as disappointing. Perhaps I should listen to them again, but I did not get what Adams was doing.

The oratorio ended with the resurrection of Christ, which is unusual for the genre. Bach's Passions end with the burial. Adams's Narrators were a trio of countertenors, the device that links this Easter work to Adams' Nativity oratorio El Niño. The Narrators had the last line. When they sang, "Jesus saith unto her, Mary," Mary turned and saw Jesus in all the performers: Martha, Lazarus, the narrators and the dancers. Called by her name, she recognized Jesus for who he truly is. Strangers have become Friends. Otherness has become Self.

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