Arts & Events

A Semi-Staged Gospel According to the Other Mary at Davies

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday February 23, 2017 - 05:04:00 PM

There is tremendous hubris at work in John Adams. He reaches for the heavens, yet inevitably remains earthbound. In The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which was performed in a semi-staged setting by San Francisco Symphony February 16-18, a musical passage here or there may momentarily soar, yet vast stretches of music never get off the ground.  

In a pre-concert talk, John Adams said in this work he wants to make the audience feel extreme emotions. Yet I came away from this Gospel, as I did from performances of John Adams’ operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, feeling empty. Where Bach, in his Passions, can make even an atheist share in the grief and anguish of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection, John Adams, himself an atheist or at least an agnostic, offers here only a pastiche full of affectations of emotions. Likewise for the politics. Adams may take up issues associated with progressive politics. But in merely alluding to them and seeking to wrap himself in the mantle of progressivism without taking a clear-cut stand, which is what he did in Nixon in China and, to disastrous effect, in The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams, and to a lesser extent Peter Sellars as well, lay themselves open to the charge that, politically, they are mere poseurs, cashing in on a fashionable aura of progressivism. 

Working as usual with Peter Sellars, who supplied the Other Mary libretto by stringing together widely diverse texts, John Adams premiered The Gospel According to the Other Mary in 2012 with Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic. For a work of this title, there is, astoundingly, no evidence whatsoever that either Peter Sellars or John Adams even knew of the existence of the papyrus manuscript of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which was discovered in Upper Egypt in 1895. Sellars and Adams may lard their Other Mary with 20th century texts that might be called feminist, yet they betray not the slightest interest in the ultimate feminist text that is The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which sheds invaluable new light on a distinctly feminist tradition of early Christianity long hushed-up by the Church fathers. If readers want to experience an operatic setting of this long-suppressed Gospel, they should turn not to Adams and Sellars but to Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which received a splendid production at San Francisco Opera in 2013 with Sasha Cooke in the lead role. 

John Adams and Peter Sellars set their Other Mary in a dual timeframe – the biblical time of the Gospels, on one hand, and, on the other, the present. In the biblical timeframe, they focus not on Jesus -- who is never seen, only quoted – but on Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha, and their brother, Lazarus. In the present timeframe, Mary and Martha are depicted as social workers, political activists who care for the homeless, the poverty-stricken, and the immigrant farm workers. Other Mary opens with Mary Magdalene in jail where she is placed in a cell next to a woman experiencing horrendous withdrawal symptoms from an overdose of heroin. The music in this opening scene is harrowing. As Mary sings from a text by Catholic social worker Dorothy Day, horns blare and chords slash. The chorus interjects “Howl ye; for the day of the Lord is at hand.”  

The role of Mary is sung by mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor, whose voice is perhaps more angular than beautiful. John Adams states that he sees Mary as a woman who was likely abused in childhood, a woman who bears the scars of this past yet seeks inner peace. In Scene 2, Mary and Martha are depicted running a hostel for unemployed and poverty-stricken woman. Martha does all the work, while Mary meditates and strives to pray. Martha is sung by contralto Tamara Mumford, who possesses a remarkable voice of great range and color. Mumford was outstanding as Martha. Scene 3 depicts the illness and death of Lazarus, then his raising from the dead by Jesus. This scene goes on much too long. It is melodramatic in a pejorative sense, and it simply doesn’t work. In an oratorio that seeks to draw connections between the biblical past and the ongoing present, the raising of Lazarus has no place, for our secular age has no truck with so-called miracles, and this one is a whopper. As Lazarus, tenor Jay Hunter Morris lies on his death pallet wrapped in his shroud and comes back to life very slowly, wriggling first his toes, then a finger or two, then flexing a leg, then arching his back, and finally bolting upright in almost comical fashion. This whole scene and the music that accompanies it are tedious in the extreme. The inclusion of this scene represents a huge failure of artistic vision on the part of both Peter Sellars and John Adams. 

Scene 4 is not much better. Lazarus is so delighted to have come back from the dead that he sings a set-piece aria that sounds for all the world like a sheep bleating in a bah-bah singsong voice. Next we see Mary anointing Jesus’s body with perfumed ointments, and, kneeling, she washes Jesus’s feet and wipes them with her hair. Mary now sings from Louise Erdrich’s poem “Mary Magdalene,” voicing the startling assertion that “I will drive boys to smash empty bottles on their brows. It is the old way that girls get even with their fathers – by wrecking their bodies on other men.” For this bit of text and the feet-washing of Jesus by Mary, Adams offers lush strings and more than a hint of eroticism. This scene doesn’t quite jibe with the ascetic Mary we have seen in previous scenes; but it somehow works as an illustration of the contradictions Adams sees in Mary’s character. Moreover, when onlookers object to the money spent on exotic perfumes and ointments, saying the money would be better spent helping the poor, Jesus is reported intervening with the words, “The poor will ever be with us, but I will not ever be with us.” Mary has thus prepared him for the death he knows is coming. In the context of this Sellars libretto, with its emphasis on working with the poor, Jesus’s words almost seem selfish and insensitive. The final scene of Act I depicts the Passover dinner. Set to a poem by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, this music is sung by tenor Jay Hunter Morris in a simple, songful voice that is quite moving. The words speak of hope: “This year in fear and shame, next year in virtue and justice.” 

Musically, John Adams claims to have moved beyond the minimalism of his early works. Yet the minimalist emphasis on rhythmic propulsion at the expense of melody and harmony remains as the bedrock of Adams’ Other Mary. The difference between his early works and this one lies mainly in the thicker orchestration, which features twelve woodwinds, eight brass, a full complement of strings, a huge battery of percussion, including a forest of Almglocken, tuned gongs, and tam-tams, plus a quartet of piano, harp, electric bass guitar, and cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer). This good-sized, quite exotic orchestra, conducted by Grant Gershon, brought out the rich coloration of this music. However, the minimalist emphasis on repetition with slight rhythmic variations certainly got tediously repetitive. Without a Jesus present on stage, the narrative element is provided by three countertenors, here sung by Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, directed by Ragnar Bohlin, contributed concise choral interjections. The staging (or semi-staging) by Elkhanah Pulitzer tried to inject a bit of drama into this overlong (nearly three-hour test of audience endurance), but to little avail. 

After intermission, Act II, Scene 1 opened to an audience much depleted by patrons who simply had heard enough. Opening with raucous, strident music in a scene in which police pound on the door of Mary-and-Martha’s hostel, coming in search of Jesus of Nazareth, Act II begins noisily. Jesus gives himself up to the police. In the street, some of Jesus’s supporters turn violent, and one supporter slices off the ear of a policeman. Jesus rebukes his supporter, picks up the severed ear, and miraculously restores it to its owner’s head. Yet another miracle hard to believe in today. “He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword,” is the message Jesus directs at his supporter. Scene 2 depicts the protests of women. This time they are sisters, mothers and wives of farm workers who, under the leadership of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, are on strike against the grape-growers who deny their workers good housing, decent wages, and health benefits. The text here is from social worker Dorothy Day, who briefly joined in the United Farm Workers struggle. Scene 3 depicts the scene at Golgotha, where it is reported by the three countertenors that Jesus is nailed to the cross and hoisted. The music here is again raucous, with crowds of onlookers sung by the chorus in mocking, shouting, abusive voices. A lament by Mary Magdalene based on Louise Erdrich’s poem “The Savior” is accompanied by keening oboes and clarinets. Scene 4 depicts the nightlong vigil at the foot of the Cross by Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lazarus. Instead of having Jesus say “Eli, eli, lama sabacthani? (Lord, why have you abandoned me?)”, this Jesus of Sellars and Adams is reported as saying, “ Ash to ash, you say, but I know different. I will not stop burning.” The switch of texts here undercuts the drama. 

Scenes 5 and 6 depict the removal of the dead Christ from the Cross, the washing of his body, the placement of his corpse in a cave-like tomb, and, finally, his Resurrection. Momentarily interrupted by an extraneous bit of poetry from Louise Erdrich about the birth of frogs, the tale of the Resurrection is surprisingly and disappointingly anticlimactic. John Adams is simply not up to the task of providing music for the Resurrection that moves us. Instead, this strange, overlong, often tedious Gospel According to the Other Mary simply fades out, then makes a feeble attempt, altogether unsuccessful, to go out in a brief, hurried blaze of glory. As I said earlier, it just left me feeling empty.