John Adams – The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Mary Magdalene – Patricia Bardon
Martha – Meredith Arwady
Lazarus – Russell Thomas
Countertenors – Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley
Chorus of English National Opera, Orchestra of English National Opera / Joana Carneiro.
Stage director – Peter Sellars
Coliseum, London. Tuesday, November 25th, 2014
This performance of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary was the first following the world stage premiere the previous week. It is a fascinating work, occasionally frustrating, but it is undoubtedly Adams’ strongest work to date and marks a clear new step in his development as a composer. Interesting perhaps that my reaction to the piece varied so much between the interval at the end of Act 1 and the end of the performance. At the interval, I was full of admiration for a work that showed highly sophisticated orchestral writing but with vocal writing that sounded uncomfortable and unnatural. By the end however, it was clear that the vocal writing had grown in confidence and in assurance.
The piece is a setting of the gospel story focusing on Mary Magdalene using words from scripture and interpolating more recent work by Dorothy Day, Primo Levi, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan and others. As an atheist from a non-Christian background perhaps some of the symbolism was lost on me. Nevertheless the work had a timeless quality that made it neither of now nor of the past and the effect was hypnotic. The presence of dancers doubling the characters also added to this effect. We saw individuals yet seeing multiple incarnations of them added to the impression of timelessness. The juxtaposition of real events such as United Farm Workers protest march with the ancient story made the story live as if new. There was an added poignancy in seeing previous examples of police brutality on a day when the people of Ferguson, Missouri are asking similar questions. Despite being witness to history, we don’t always learn from it. Perhaps that is the central tenet of the work and it is an exceptionally powerful one.
Peter Sellars’ libretto had some unfortunate moments and there were times when it made as if to keep the audience at arm’s length rather than bringing it closer. There was an awkwardness to some of the text that was less than convincing and I couldn’t help but thinking that it could have benefitted from having someone rewrite some of the passages. The staging however was captivating. Set in what appeared to be a prison camp surrounded by barbed wire and overlooked by CCTV, there was a sparseness that put the attention entirely on the singers and fine dancers. Shamefully, ENO did not publish the biographies of the dancers – Banks, Stephanie Berge, Ingrid Mackinnon and Parinay Mehra in the program – this really should have been rectified, perhaps through a loose insert. The choreography was mesmerizing with movement of dazzling rhythmic complexity and ability. There were some real coups de théâtre – as Lazarus was resurrected, one of the dancers slid under the surface of the stage. The scenes of police brutality were extremely difficult to watch and despite, or perhaps because of, the signature Sellars hand-movements, the Personenregie felt absolutely connected with the abstract nature of the work.
Musically, this is the strongest score I have heard from the California-based composer. The orchestral writing was staggering in its beauty and its inventiveness. The orchestra, with the peppery presence of a cimbalom, marked equally with some striking writing for percussion. It was outstandingly realized by the ENO orchestra at the peak of its form. Joana Carneiro led a reading of unfailing accuracy, rhythmic precision and was utterly natural and paced to perfection. The orchestra played this score as if they had been playing it all their lives and their commitment was undoubted. Likewise the ENO Chorus cemented their reputation as one of the very best. They sang the complicated music with a meticulousness that matched the complicated manoeuvres they had to execute.
Patricia Bardon’s Mary was perhaps a character who was not always with us. She could have been suffering from PTSD or disturbed by the events of her life. Hers was a haunting presence on stage, always making an impact even when she wasn’t singing. Vocally she was extremely fine – the difficult intervals mastered and her oaky yet limpid mezzo brought great beauty despite the harrowing setting. Meredith Arwady’s rich and full-bodied contralto brought strong low notes and a sympathetic stage presence to the role of Martha. The three countertenors, always singing together, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley, were constant presences on stage – they negotiated Adams’ harmonies with ease and blended seamlessly together. Russell Thomas’ Lazarus sang with genuine humanity and vocal warmth. The voice is so easily produced and carried across the orchestra effortlessly. His Passover aria was incredibly moving in its sincerity and was for me the single most effective moment in the score where the text, music and performance truly came together. Make no mistake, Thomas is the real thing and he is without doubt a major talent.
This is an endlessly fascinating work, one that shows the orchestral writing of a true master. It is an uneven work but I also think that it is an important one. Tonight it was given the most committed performance imaginable at the highest possible standard. It is a tribute to Carneiro’s exceptional skills as a conductor and the extremely high standards of the ENO forces. Combined with solo singing of a genuine honesty and humanity, this really does make for a remarkable evening.