Stage Version of Adams’ Gospel Oratorio Laudable but Disconcerting

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Adams, The Gospel According to the Other Mary: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera /Joana Carniero (conductor), London Coliseum, 21.11.2014 (CC)

Patricia Bardon: Mary Magdalene
Meredith Arwady: Martha
Russell Thomas: Lazarus
Daniel Bubeck: Seraph
Brian Cummings: Seraph
Nathan Medley: Seraph

Banks: Angel Gabriel
Stephanie Berge: Mary
Ingrid Mackinnon: Mary, Mother of Jesus
Parinay Mehra: Lazarus

Director: Peter Sellars
Set Design: George Taypin
Lighting Designer: James F. Ingalla
Costume Designer: Gabriel Berry


The much awaited world stage premiere of Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary promised so much, especially in the light of Adams’ handling of El Niño, (the present work is intended as a companion piece). The premiere continues, also, the “special association” that ENO has with Adams, following in the footsteps of Nixon in China, Dr Atomic and The Death of Klinghoffer.

Both El Niño and The Gospel According to the Other Mary weave together literary fragments to form their libretti. In the latter’s case, the The Gospel retells the Passion from one resurrection to another: from that of Lazarus to that of Jesus. It also seeks to begin to redress the issue of male-domination in all things Biblical. In a religion that has little time for the Divine Feminine (much less Goddesses), Adams’ attempt to tell it from another point of view is laudable in intent. The main problem is that there is little sense of the special nature of the story audible in Adams’ music. In opting for a contemporary setting (a doss house in Los Angeles’ skid row), Adams seeks to reiterate the relevance of the Bible’s tales. Here he retells the Passion story from the death and resurrection of Lazarus to the resurrection of Christ. The director, Peter Sellars, is also the librettist. He opts to intersperse the texts from the New and Old Testaments with texts by Dorothy Day, Louise Eldrich, Primo Levi, Rosario Costellanos, June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen and Rubén Dario.

The setting of the Los Angeles hostel for homeless women is given special poignancy by the presence of CCTV cameras and barbed-wire fences; yet the sand-yellow set seems to, in parallel, refer us back to the times and spaces of the Bible. George Tsypin’s staging here, as throughout, is eye-catching, thought-provoking and always spot-on with regard to the dramatic circumstances. The use of stage and props is economical, but its very effectiveness lies in its economy; James Ingalla’s lighting designs are impeccable.

Although Jesus is vital to the story, he does not appear. Rather, a trio of countertenors (impeccable of delivery here) act as narrators.  Adams’ music for them is consistently beautiful, and expertly written. Adams’ mode of expression is a long way now from the minimalism with which he is so often associated; so much so that when the influence of minimalism does make itself felt, it almost seems out of place. Instead there is an overarching lyricism and a clear expertise in handling the forces he uses.

The first act focuses on Lazarus’ story, the second on Christ’s death and resurrection. First performed in Los Angeles in 2012 as a passion-oratorio (and therefore unstaged), The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a large, sometimes sprawling work that seems to imply a new direction for Adams. The music veers from the minimalist to the unbearably poignant to the nondescript, the last a sort of general nod in the direction of contemporary American opera at its most anonymous. It is quite disconcerting, not to mention discombobulating.

Patricia Bardon was outstanding as Rosmira in Handel’s Partenope at the Coliseum in 2008. She was no less impressive here, in very different music. She exuded sheer involvement in the part of Mary Magdalene, taking control of the stage in presence while being vocally impeccable. Her sister Martha was taken in very direct fashion by Meredith Arwady. As Lazarus, tenor Russell Thomas was perhaps less impressive at first, sounding a little forced and uncomfortable; as he warmed into the part, so did his characterisation grow (his Passover aria that closes the first act was one of the evening’s highlights).

The role of the Archangel Gabriel is given to the “flex-dancer” simply known as Banks, an astonishingly supple young man whose commentaries of motion have a very particular poignancy. Other dancers, too, acted as alter-egos of the major characters, a fascinating idea well delivered. The cast is small (the singing cast at least); the female voices all seemed perfectly cast.

There is a recording available on DG with Dudamel and his Los Angeles forces (one can also hear that recording via Spotify).

Colin Clarke

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