The Gospel According to the Other Mary: Concert Review

Gustavo Dudamel LA Philharmonic - H 2013
Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

Gustavo Dudamel LA Philharmonic - H 2013

A musically exciting, dramatically patchy oratorio infusing the Passion with modern sociopolitical elements.

John Adams' 135-minute attempt to recharge the story of Jesus' final days with contemporary relevance arguably doesn't go far enough to become genuinely provocative or penetrating.

Nine months after rushing to meet a fixed premiere date at the L.A. Phil, John Adams' Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary still doesn't feel like it's quite come to full term. Maybe it never will.

Musically dynamic and enthralling in sections, this 135-minute attempt to recharge the story of Jesus' final days with contemporary relevance and social justice perspectives arguably doesn't go far enough to become genuinely provocative or penetrating. Instead, it spins some familiar wheels, both from the format of Adams' 2000 Nativity oratorio El Nino and in the familiar gestures of librettist Peter Sellars' staging. The musical excitement of certain portions of the work make it a must for devotees of serious new composition, but measured admiration rather than complete capitulation likely lies ahead as the company, after its three-night L.A. stand, takes the production to Europe, then New York.

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Los Angeles audiences should be warned that Gustavo Dudamel will not be on the podium Friday night because he has been paged to return to his native Venezuela to conduct at the funeral proceedings for the late President Hugo Chavez. Grant Gershon will conduct in his place, while Dudamel is scheduled to return in time for the final local performance Sunday.

Certainly, Adams followers and -- in a more specific, technical sense -- anyone interested in hearing an example of exceptional instrumentation and orchestration will be amply rewarded by the experience of this Gospel. In the realm of radical interpretations of Jesus' death and its aftermath, however, this season by chance offers a considerably more daring and successful one, in the form of Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary, first in its novella form and soon on Broadway in a solo performance by Fiona Shaw as a troubled mother who disapproves of the young men who surrounded her son in life and are attempting to shape his story for their own purposes after his death.

The “other Mary” Adams and Sellars focus upon is Mary Magdalene, here not a fallen or disreputable woman but an agitated, probing soul who has been deeply enriched by her exposure to Jesus. By contrast, her sister Martha is a steady, reliable soul. The two run a women's shelter, and the first of the two-act work's 11 scenes takes place in a jail cell that injects contemporary issues of drug addiction, unemployment and violence against women in ways that seek to link past and present. Sellars long ago said that, for him, “Art is about re-energizing spirituality in a secular context.” The aspirations of this Gospel fit his definition to perfection, but in this instance, the effort feels somewhat forced, the sociopolitical concerns unequally balanced with, and at times awkwardly imposed upon, the religious elements.

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To the conductor's left is a roughly seven-by-10-foot raised platform on which the six singers and three dancers perform, and to his right is a table around which they gather on other occasions. On a ledge behind the orchestra are 46 singers from the Los Angeles Master Chorale who erupt from time to time but all too often have been directed to display defiance or intent by raising their fists in the air in generic revolutionary style or, in other interludes, pantomime policed or army beatings meted out to the poor and defenseless.

As for the superb orchestra itself, its rear has been fully ringed for the occasion by an unusually elaborate percussion section, with a vast array of cymbals and gongs on the side and, most intriguingly, a cimbalom, a  Middle European member of the dulcimer instrument family that's often heard in gypsy music and produces an appealing metallic twang.

As in a foreign-language opera production, projected titles help clarify lyrics that, at least on the side of the hall, were impossible to fully understand despite the valiant efforts of the fine singers. Culled from a variety of sources including Dorothy Day, Primo Levi and Mexican poets, the words are mostly in English, with some Spanish and Latin. Often repeated, some possess a cumulative power, while at other times what's being sung is merely perplexing in context, confusing as to whose voice is being represented, or even downright wacky.

Gospel's longest sustained and most powerful dramatic stretch recounts the sickness, death and resurrection of Mary's and Martha's brother Lazarus. Positioned here as a sort-of dry run for what will shortly happen with Jesus, this miraculous chapter has inspired Adams to a pinnacle of inspiration; gorgeous, haunting strings accompany the man's descent toward death, while eerie bass and cello wails along with ocean waves of choral crescendos and diminuendos reminiscent of Ligeti presage his return to life. Act I climaxes with a Passover ritual.

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Startlingly for an opening night of a major work, quite a few seats, especially in the front orchestra section, were unoccupied after intermission. Don't supposedly sophisticated subscribers and audiences know what they're in for at an Adams/Sellars program? Maybe not. In all events, the second act brings the past and present, the spiritual and societal, into ever-increasing proximity, with sometimes dicey results. Dragging Cesar Chavez and farm-worker organizing into the same frame with Jesus' trial doesn't sit well, while representing Jesus' resurrection by the birth of tiny frogs (amusingly evoked in the score) is even more of a stretch. Toward the end, one can't escape feeling that the dramatic and symbolic synthesis that would raise the oratorio to the heights intermittently promised by the pulsing, searching score just isn't happening, which ultimately limits its impact to the head rather than expanding it to the heart.

The present singers and dancers all have returned from last year's premiere and perform impressively. Although Adams has spoken of editing and trimming the work in the interim, the 135 minutes of music on offer is essentially identical to the performance time noted for previous performances.

Music: John Adams
Libretto: Peter Sellars, based on Old and New Testament sources and with texts by Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, Primo Levi, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen and Ruben Dario
Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel
Cast: Kelley O'Connor, Tamara Mumford, Russell Thomas, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley, Michael Schumacher, Anani Saouvi, Troy Ogilvie
Chorus: Los Angeles Master Chorale
160 minutes, including one 25-minute intermission