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

Photo: Getty
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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.