Magdalene sisters: John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary

The piece is an attempt to see the Passion through the eyes of the women who surrounded Jesus, with particular emphasis on Mary Magdalene.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Gospel According to the Other Mary
English National Opera, London WC2

As far as attempts to tell the Passion of Christ through music go, Bach’s efforts of the 1720s endure as the pinnacle of the form. His St Matthew and St John stand apart for the chromatic complexity with which the violence of the crucifixion is evoked, and for the ravishing melancholy of the arias that tell the story of how Jesus lived and died. Since Mendelssohn revived the St Matthew in Berlin in 1829, bringing the oft-overlooked genius of Bach’s music to the world’s attention once more, many others have followed his example. One of the more recent restagings was produced by the American director Peter Sellars, whose version of the St Matthew as a “transformative ritual” split the critics at this year’s Proms (descriptions such as “immersive” and “intimate” vied with “tree-hugging” and “ludicrous” on the pages of the broadsheets).

Sellars has said of his St Matthew: “It’s not theatre. It’s a prayer.” He wanted to prioritise the communal, traumatic experience of Jesus’s death and resurrection. A similar desire drives the most recent product of his long-running collaboration with the composer John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary. This piece, debuted in a semi-staged version by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2012 and now receiving its first theatrical staging at ENO, is an attempt to see the Passion through the eyes of the women who surrounded Jesus, with particular emphasis on Mary Magdalene.

This is not an opera, despite the venue. Billed as a “Passion oratorio”, it is perhaps best understood as a series of tableaux with musical accompaniment. Like previous Adams-Sellars collaborations, such as The Death of Klinghoffer and the Nativity tale El Niño, The Other Mary merges the recognisable biblical story with more obscure contemporary references. The residents of a house for homeless women on Skid Row in LA overlap with Mary, her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus, while later Mary and Martha join the struggle of the Latin American civil rights activist César Chávez. The chorus, dressed a bit like the delegates at the Liberal Democrat party conference (tunics and comfortable shoes abound), stand in for a wide range of oppressed peoples.

Adams’s music is glorious. As in El Niño, a trio of countertenors guides us through the story. Wearing camouflage hoodies and grey trousers, they are unusual seraphim, although their closely interweaving, often dissonant harmonies are truly heavenly. In contrast to the high voices of the men, both Mary (Patricia Bardon) and Martha (Meredith Arwady) are scored low, the latter using the bottom of her range particularly well to project the solid reliability her sister Mary lacks so completely. The young Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro, making her ENO debut, draws a superb performance from the orchestra – judging by the expert way she manipulated the ever-shifting rhythms of this piece, we can expect great things from her in the future.

The libretto, assembled by Sellars, makes reference to the writings of a disparate group of extraordinary women, including the 20th-century political activist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, the 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen and the Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos. Parts of it are incredibly powerful, but the leaps between styles and contexts can be baffling in places.

Despite being the subject of the whole work, Jesus doesn’t receive a continuous portrayal in The Other Mary. The other characters take turns to stand in for him in the various scenes – a kind of doubling that is also echoed by the prominence given to dance in the work. Each of the main roles has a mute dance double, who dances next to and with their assigned singer. The Angel Gabriel is portrayed by an astonishing flex dancer credited only as “Banks”. The first-act finale is the triumphant moment of the whole production, as he dances on the table at the Passover feast while the tenor Russell Thomas sings the only recognisable aria of the whole show.

The complexity of this staging is objectively impressive – particularly in the case of George Tsypin’s set, which combines barbed wire with vast lengths of gauzy fabric that allow the dancers to slide on and beneath it. But rather than heightening the experience, the intricacies of Sellars’s production feel unnecessary. Just as with Bach, Adams’s ravishing music requires no embellishment to become something you want to hear over and over again. 

“The Gospel According to the Other Mary” runs until 5 December. eno.org

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents