A John Adams ‘Passion’ staged by his regular collaborator Peter Sellars sounded promising, even if the latter was going to ‘craft’ the libretto. As Sellars’s synopsis made clear, The Gospel According to the Other Mary would juxtapose Biblical events with some quintessentially Californian struggles.
The Bethany where Christ raised the dead Lazarus would be twinned with the Bethany where oppressed farm-workers were beaten up by police, and where the jail resounded with the shrieks of a woman in the throes of drug-withdrawal – which is how the opening scene began. Creative liberties would be taken with the original story: in place of the ‘reformed prostitute’ version of Mary Magdalene, this Mary and her sister Martha would be social activists, while Lazarus would be their brother, thus allowing Sellars to weave it all into a neatly feminist family fable.
The Barbican hall was inventively reconfigured: while the Los Angeles Master Chorale occupied a platform at the rear, the central part was filled with the LA Philharmonic, and a dais at the front served as the acting space, with Gustavo Dudamel’s podium squeezed in at one side. There were uncomfortable disjunctions in the drama, however, as well as between the score and its libretto. Sellars’s clumsy blend of cod-Biblical and contemporary speech was interlarded with Spanish, Latin, and American poetry; although the orchestral and choral accompaniment had the graceful repetitiveness one associates with Adams, the soloists’ melodic mode was relentlessly jagged and atonal.
Constant doubling meant that one didn’t know who was who, what was going on, or why everyone on stage seemed so desperately worked up. Kelley O’Connor and Tamara Mumford (the mezzos incarnating Mary and Martha), plus Russell Thomas’s Lazarus, plus the three countertenors incarnating Jesus (an interesting touch which worked well), all sang heroically, but this just sharpened the general sense of wasted effort.
If the first act was dismal, the second was a sort of redemption, as Adams settled into the tonal mode which suits him best, and Sellars began to work his usual magic with moving, living flesh, Mary and Lazarus each being shadowed by a dancer. There was visceral horror in the procession to Golgotha, and cathartic wonder (lit by a musical radiance) as the reality of the Resurrection sank in. And it was good to see superstar Dudamel humbly doing a complex technical job. Somehow I don’t think this misshapen piece will join the roster of Adams classics.