Other Mary: a statue of Mary Magdelene in San Salvador. Photo: Getty
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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.

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.

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

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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia