By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Friday, June 1, 2012 • Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Today and tomorrow at 2 p.m.
At age 65, John Adams is at the stage of his compositional life where he thinks big … very big. In 2000, Adams and Peter Sellars — with whom he has collaborated as librettist and stage director for 28 years — created El Niño, a staged oratorio based on the nativity of Jesus and inspired by Handel’s Messiah. Now Adams and Sellars have turned to the end of the life of Christ for what is, in effect, the bookend to El Niño. This weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale and six soloists — all under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel — are presenting the world premiere of The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a work inspired, in part, by the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach.
This is a very important work, stunningly performed by all forces last night. It’s also very long — almost exactly three hours from downbeat to conclusion — and it’s just in its embryonic form. Next March, Sellars will direct a staged version of the oratorio first in Los Angeles and then on tour in London, Lucerne, Paris, and New York City. Adams was reportedly very late in delivering the score to the Phil; with 10 more months and four performances to evaluate, it’s interesting to speculate how — or if — Adams and Sellars will make changes prior to next spring.
In the preconcert lecture, Sellars explained that The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a Passion story framed by two resurrections. It begins with the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, a week before the events that would lead to the Last Supper with Jesus’ disciples. The oratorio continues with Jesus’ crucifixion and — unlike Bach — concludes with Jesus’ resurrection.
The title of the work refers to Mary Magdalene, which theologically presents problems. Most scholars do not believe that Mary Magdalene is the Mary mentioned in the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10: 38-42) nor in the episode of the raising of Lazarus (John 1: 1-44). There were probably several women named Mary who were part of Jesus’ entourage, of whom Mary Magdalene was certainly one of the most prominent. She provided financial support to Jesus, traveled with him, was at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified, was present at his burial and was one of the first people to arrive at the tomb on Easter morning and discover Jesus had risen.
However, from oratorio’s perspective, the decision by Adams and Sellars to conflate Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany makes stylistic sense as does the decision to use Lazarus during the second act in the role that Bach assigned to the Evangelist, or storyteller, in his Passions. Both decisions simplified the libretto and having Mary as a tortured soul provided the bridge to the decision to create the work in multiple layers.
In addition to the “traditional” Passion story, Adams and Sellars set three of the “scenes” in contemporary times, beginning Act I with what they called a “jailhouse of hospitality” and inserting two scenes into Act II set amid the César Chavez-led farm work protests in the Salinas Valley. As Adams noted before the concert, Jesus was often surrounded by the very poor and hopeless, “those who we may give a buck or two on the street and then expect someone else will solve the problem” as Sellars said, and those upon whose backs governments try to balance today’s budgets, added Adams.
In addition to Old and New Testament sources, Sellars used texts from American social activist Dorothy Day, novelist and poet Louise Erdrich, Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, and 12th century mystic and abbess Hildegard of Bingen and others to create the multiple “planes” of the libretto.
Whether these “planes” added significantly to the overall effect can’t be fully appreciated on a single hearing. For Christians, the Passion story may have been enough; for non-Christians, the other stories may have been crucial. I didn’t think that Adams’ best writing came in the non-Biblical sections and, as the person who accompanied me noted, we wondered whether the context of these contemporary scenes will make as much sense in Europe or even New York as they do in California.
Except for a typically large percussion section (but no timpani), Adams scored the work for a modest-sized orchestra, which was a good thing because even with reduced forces, the Phil musicians occasionally swamped the soloists. Among the instruments were a cimbalon, an ancient Hungarian stringed instrument, and a bass guitar.
There were several riveting orchestral sections, including the death of Lazarus, Jesus’ three days in the tomb, and dawn breaking on Resurrection morning. Especially considering how little time the Phil had to prepare this complex work, the orchestra sounded remarkably cohesive and played formidably and Dudamel (who used a score) seemed to grow in confidence as the performance progressed.
Ultimately, however, this piece soared on its vocalists, beginning with 48 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which sang with rhythmic precision, delivered impressive diction (the projected supertitles often weren’t necessary when the Chorale was singing), and was mesmerizingly ferocious in the Golgatha mob scene.
The soloists were exemplary, particularly because Adams pushed the extremes of each singer’s vocal range. Adams wrote the role of Mary Magdalene for mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and she brought a riveting, luminous performance to the complex role that included manic mood swings from morbid anger to compassion. Contralto Tamara Mumford’s rich tone was perfectly cast for the role of Martha, and tenor Russell Thomas sang the role of Lazarus with explosive fervor.
The person of Jesus never actually appears in the oratorio; instead his lines are apportioned among the chorus, soloist and — in particular — a trio of counter tenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley) who often intoned their lines together in close but not displeasing harmonies.
Reports are that the original commission called for a 90-minute piece; last night’s performance ran 149. Somewhere in between the two might have made for a tighter, more focused piece. Nonetheless, it’s too bad that so many people bailed at intermission (somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the audience by my admittedly unscientific count). If you’re coming this afternoon or tomorrow, be forewarned about the length but do stay to the end for what is clearly a major 21st century work. It will be fascinating to see how the staged version looks and sounds, but for now this is something special in its own right.
• The preconcert lecture, with Adams and Sellars conversing with Chad Smith, the Phil’s vice president of artistic planning, provided plenty of background on the process of constructing The Gospel According to the Other Mary. It also included a hilarious metaphor for the collaborative process; I won’t spoil the fun in this post but if it doesn’t appear in either today’s or tomorrow’s lecture, email me and I’ll pass it along.
• The Phil helpfully provided both printed texts and projected supertitles. Although Thomas May’s program notes did outline how the non-Biblical sources were used, it would have been helpful for those reading the insert in the hall or later at home to have the sources identified as they appeared.
• The singers appeared to be wearing body mics and there were speakers set up on both sides of the stage but I didn’t sense any significant reinforcement, which I suppose it a good thing.
• The orchestra and Dudamel were dressed in all black with no coats for the men, similar to what they wore for Don Giovanni.
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.