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There's Something About the Other Mary

June 03, 2012

 
Another Mary's Magda
Part of the fun in listening to new music is never knowing exactly what you’re going to get. Sometimes it’s exciting and sometimes it’s disappointing. And sometimes it’s confusing. After attending the world premiere of John Adams’ new massive oratorio/opera, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Thursday I was mostly puzzled. So much so I elected to wait until after hearing a second performance today before writing about it. And still I’m not sure if the piece is utter genius or something decidedly less memorable. But I do feel certain that this is a major step in a new direction for Adams, and the oratorio is decidedly unlike anything he’s written before. Now that’s not to say that there aren’t bits here and there that evoke familiar pieces from Adams’ prior works. Lazarus’ aria at the close of Act I, “Tell me how is this night” has ties to Oppenheimer’s Act I aria “Batter My Heart” from Doctor Atomic. And there were more than a few times in the choral writing particularly that I was reminded of The Death of Klinghoffer. But despite the obvious similarities between Other Mary and Adams’ prior New Testament oratorio El Nino, the musical differences between the two works, as well as many of his more recent compositions, are striking.

If El Nino is a contemporary take on Handel’s Messiah, The Gospel According to the Other Mary most clearly revisits Bach’s great St. Matthew Passion. Like El Nino, and Doctor Atomic, the text of the Other Mary is compiled from a variety of different sources, both poetic and not, to highlight contemporary connections to the story of the Passion. But El Nino is filled with circumscribed passages moving from one aria or contained musical tableaux to the next. There are scenes backed with grandeur and seat-riveting emotion with large cinematic crescendos. In contrast, The Other Mary is far more subdued overall and musically homogeneous. There are beautiful, and beautifully complex moments, but they are embedded in a work meant to be heard as a cohesive whole. It’s not unlike the contrast between a hit-laden Rossini opera and the stage works of Wagner or Debussy. The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a very far cry from the kind of toe-tapping kitsch of City Noir from 2009 and it makes El Nino sound like The Merry Widow.

If the new oratorio sounds heavy, it is. Surely it should be considering the subject matter at hand. But, Adams and his collaborator Peter Sellars have gone much farther than in prior collaborations in incorporating outside elements into the familiar story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Part of that is clearly indicated in the title. Adams and Sellars have returned to the gnostic gospels to tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection from the perspective of the women around him including Mary Magdalene, sung in the premiere in a gorgeously dark-hued nearly contralto manner by Kelley O’Connor, and her sister Martha, an equally mysterious and transfixing Tamara Mumford. The events concerning Mary and Martha prior to the crucifixion are familiar ones. What’s new is the grafting of a second, more contemporary storyline on top of this one. In Adams and Sellars’ version, Martha and Mary are also in and out of jail, running a home for unemployed women, and at other times are protesting alongside Cesar Chavez in mid-20th Century California. With all this activity, it’s a wonder they find time to deal with all the Jesus business on the agenda.

The oratorio opens with Mary in prison listening to the screams of her cellmates. The superb Los Angeles Master Chorale gets a crack at the text of court injunctions against the field workers, and Jesus may just come back as a gardener in the end. It’s a bold move and one that certainly ties in strains of liberation theology to the mix of poetry and other texts grafted together for this libretto. But it doesn’t always work very well. The actual sung text rarely captures the level of detail and action in Sellars’ synopsis, and presented as an oratorio, the piece is often confusing outside of the inevitable draw of the well-known passion story. Mary is saddled with chestnuts like “I cut off my hair and toss it across your pillow/A dark towel/like the one after sex.” You may not be able to hum it after the show, but you aren’t likely to forget it either. On the other hand, the new last words that Adams and Sellars have given Jesus to speak from the cross are insightful and moving. The piece cried out for some physical action to flesh out these unclear connections and give the performance cohesion. The Gospel According to the Other Mary may end up being quite a bit more of an opera than an oratorio in the end and next season’s planned stage version of the work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic could prove more revealing.

For every moment in this dark brooding score that hits home, as with Lazarus’ closing Act I aria sung by a chillingly superb tenor Russell Thomas, there are twice as many that are stone cold dull. The score is almost scrubbed clean of the few remnants of the kind of minimalism Adams was associated with in his early career. The trio of countertenors from Adams’ prior oratorio return, the roles sung here by Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley, but this time around they are far less unified and take up and abandon many voices in the cast of characters beyond being angels and simple narrators. The orchestra is smaller than one might expect, reaching only early 19th century proportions. But the instrumentation is augmented with some unusual elements including cimbalom, electric bass guitar, and more almglocken than you can shake a stick at. The Gospel According to the Other Mary does indeed have a complex and multi-layered score. Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel led these performances and notably cancelled an appearance here just a few weeks ago to allow himself more time to prepare. I can see why he would want to. The coordination required to manage the work’s diverse elements and multiple textual layers is a challenge that I wager not just anyone in the musical world could meet. The choral writing alone is a mountain to scale for Grant Gershon and the members of the excellent Los Angeles Master Chorale. Dudamel didn’t quite make the best case for the work in these initial performances, instead allowing the orchestra to wallow ponderously in orchestral passages where a more exacting clarity could have provided a stronger sense of motion in the work. He reaches for the dark beauty in the score but drowns the piece in doing so amid its many muddy byways in its three hour plus running time.

Audiences all weekend were keenly aware of this feeling of disconnection as performance after performance, the cast returned to significantly smaller audiences after intermission. Adams too frequently crosses the fine line between mesmerizing and tedious. The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a groundbreaking and markedly different work of music theater for its creator. I believe it could turn out to be as big a revolution as Nixon in China was. But it’s not quite there yet. It’s overly long and lacking in focus. The story elements need clarification and the musical direction needs to be more decisive and clear. But there is a beautiful heart beating in this Other Mary. One can hear it in the voices of O’Connor, Mumford, and Thomas who give rich, profound performances of the three central roles. Here’s hoping it sees the resurrection it deserves along the way of its many planned future performances here and around the world in coming seasons.

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Comments:

As "The Other Brian" pointed out, your title and accompanying picture is brilliance. Major props to you.

As for "The Other Mary," it seems like we drew many of the same conclusions, and walked away with a similar feeling when it was all said and done.

Especially noteworthy that a second hearing didn't significantly change your opinion. I considered trying to do the same, but after Thursday night, I needed some space from it -- like 9 months worth of space.
I'm so happy Adams is being ambitious again, and I can't wait to hear this. I love that nobody can absorb it on first hearing or playing. I felt the same way about "Doctor Atomic," to tell you the truth, but somebody gave me a pirate CD and after listening to it a dozen times, something clicked. "Ah, got it."

I'm a supernumerary right now in the "Nixon in China" that's opening at SF Opera later this week, and to tell you the truth, it's taken 25 years for the world to learn that music because it really is different and really is hard.
Ambitious indeed! I don't think I realized the level to which I was moved until I tried to sleep after the Saturday matinee, and found I still had a whirl of impressions, emotions, questions, frustrations and thrills keeping me from sleep. I very much agree, Brian, that with the right nurturing, this piece could be one of Adams' most significant. As always, I appreciate and enjoy your thoughtful review.
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