The Gospel According to the Other Mary

The Gospel According to The Other Mary (London Coliseum, English National Opera)

Every art form has its conventions, none more so than opera. In order to understand what is before you, there is some intense reading to be done first, particularly when the subject under consideration is the world premiere of a new work by composer John Adams and director, Peter Sellars whose past collaborations have included Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer whose revival recently in New York sparked a furore of anti-semitic protest.

The iconoclastic Sellars and Adams therefore are not unused to controversy though there is nothing in their latest collaboration with English National Opera to suggest a storming of the gates in St Martin’s Lane, albeit their treatment of one of the Christian world’s seminal myths, the Passion, could lay itself open to the label, `radical’.

This is a different side to the traditional portrait of Mary, the saintly but fallen woman – full bloodied, struggling, angry and sexy in Patricia Bardon’s memorable performance. But she sits within an atmosphere of extreme Christian spiritual reverence. It is as if the spirit of 1980s liberation theology had suddenly invaded the opera hall, albeit in refined form. For this Gospel According to the Other Mary draws its inspiration from some of the 20th century most intense sources of socialist and human rights activism and concern with the poorest and most deprived in society.

The libretto, Sellars’ own with Adams, draws on the words, for example of American Catholic writer, Dorothy Day who founded the first Catholic Worker newspaper; on the poetry of African-American June Jordan, Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos and white/Native American novelist and poet, Louise Erdrich, as well as the words of Primo Levi, the Bible and Hidegard of Bingen.

Described as `a Passion oratorio’ (it received its performance as such in Los Angeles in 2012, co-commissioned by London’s Barbican theatre as a companion piece to Adams and Sellars’ previous El Nino), the intention is to bring the story of the Passion into the present, to highlight its modern day parallels.

The libretto speaks to violence, pain and suffering as well as ultimate transfiguration through love. But Sellars’ production carries little graphic violence, rather a pervasive calm with intermittent moments of high drama, none more so than in the raising of Lazarus – a moment taken straight from Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein production.

As Lazarus revives from within his cardboard box (yes, we are in cardboard city), a `creature’ slides from backstage to the front, an amoeba struggling to be born. It’s a moment too, of musical intensity, some of Adams’ most heightened writing which seems at its most inspired in the oratorio’s latter stages.

On first viewing, if this very Christian oratorio sometimes disappoints musically Sellars’ staging beguiles with its mesmerising break-dancing Angel Gabriel (Banks), its trio of seraphic counter-tenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley) and split-faceted characterisation (Russell Thomas a commanding singing Lazarus sharing the role with Parinay Mehra who also conveys a wonderful sense of the ethereal and passivity in the Passion scenes).

It also will not be easy to forget the subtle transformations of light that Sellars brings to this latter day parable of distress and resurrection bathed one moment in the golden lustre of hope and spring, the next the darkening shadows of Golgotha, one moment undulating valleys, the next the torso of a man.

Sellars’ sometimes excruciatingly reverential staging, haunted as it is by a large chorus, dressed in everyday, modern clothing, nonetheless ultimately achieves a powerful sense of apotheosis. Definitely one that would repay a second viewing.

The Gospel According to the Other Mary was at the London Coliseum from Nov 21-Dec 5, 2014