ADAMS The Gospel According to the other Mary
The Other Mary is Mary Magdalene. We may know her as the (supposedly) reformed prostitute who washed Jesus’s feet with her hair. Peter Sellars’s libretto for this new opera-oratorio follows one tradition by combining her with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, to make up the work’s three major players – a family both of close friends and followers of Jesus during the time of his ministry and more modern-day believers struggling against an often disbelieving and repressive society.
The libretto itself – rather like that of Adams’s El Niño (ArtHaus DVD, 2/14), to which The Gospel is in several ways, including form, a sequel – uses material from the Bible, from Hildegard of Bingen and Primo Levi and from a racy choice of contemporary American religion-inspired poems by authors in Spanish and English. Most of the latter (such as the Native American Louise Erdrich, the Catholic activist Dorothy Day or the Mexican poetess Rosario Castellanos) may be little known to British audiences.
As was the case with El Niño, this could all have been a trendy, even obscure collage-style mess but – unless you’re allergic to ‘historical’ characters being carried out of their own time zones for dramatic and symbolic purposes – Sellars’s achievement is pacy, coherent and intensely moving, and builds to powerful climaxes for key events like the raising of Lazarus from the dead or the Crucifixion. It provides Adams with a vehicle that has inspired music of especial fire and spirituality. As Alex Ross noted in his review of the score’s May 2012 LA premiere, ‘a composer who started out as an acolyte of Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage has rediscovered his avant-garde roots, and those who prize him as an audience-friendly neo-Romantic are in for some shocks’.
Writing for an orchestra of fairly modest conventional proportions, Adams runs the gamut of colours with a battery of percussion (tuned gongs, tam-tams) and a quartet of piano, harp, electric bass guitar and cimbalom. As in El Niño, a trio of countertenors supply much of the Evagelical narration, including all the words spoken by Jesus himself. The sonic effect is as intentionally anachronistic as Sellars’s libretto, ranging from neo medieval harmonies to electric guitar funk.
The length of the work (just 133 minutes in this recording) seemed to worry some spectators at the premiere. Listened to at home, however, Adams and Sellars’s new drama never flags. Hugely recommended.