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Contemporary take on Passion oratorio

28 March 2013

Roderic Dunnett hears a work that focuses on Mary and Martha


EVERY so often, there bursts upon us a sacred oratorio of such mag­nitude, structurally and orches­trally, and so daring in its approach to text-setting, that one senses the genre has moved on to a new plane.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle's The Last Supper, staged at Glyndebourne, while not an oratorio as such, has all the impact of one, with powerful added visuals. A more recent British example was James MacMillan's sear­­ing, monumentalSt John Passion, which has just been revived by adventurous choral societies at Bath Abbey and Exeter Cathedral.

And now, at the Barbican Hall, London, comes The Gospel Accord­ing to the Other Mary, by the American composer John Adams, whose work in tribute to the fallen of 9/11 (On the Transmigration of Souls) and nativity oratorio (El Niño) have already revealed a musician who, whatever his personal thoughts, can, like Vaughan Williams, gener­ate sacred works so charged that they seem to evince the composer's passionate belief in every image and every word.

Adams we associate with Min­imalism, of which he has been a proud founding exponent. But his ability to weave in the most extra­ordinary subtleties and delicacies, variants, and inventions on an al­­most Mozartian scale has long been apparent, whether in his opera Nixon in China, depicting the meet­ing between the American President and Mao Tse Tung, or The Death of Klinghoffer, evoking the fanatical Palestinian raid on the cruise-liner Achille Lauro.

Adams's music has come a long way from his pattering musical roots. In this, as it were, apocryphal "Gospel", his regular collaborator, the (fascinating, sometimes in­­famous) author and stage director Peter Sellars has imagined the scene in Bethany, with the patient Martha, who ministers to the dispossessed and unemployed; the more phleg­matic Mary (in no sense a former prostitute, but rather possessed of "intuition, volatile sensuality, alien­ation, manic joy, suicidal self-loathing, tender compassion"); and their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus raises on stage from the dead.

In their Bethany home (by poetic licence), Jesus is arrested, before an agonised Via Crucis, crucifixion, and renewed encounter at the tomb.

It is a cleverly contrived text,  "a Passion story that begins with women", which allows all the con­trasts of optimism and lament, calm and fury, to emerge in a distinctly operatic way. Sellars has also incorporated texts from other sources, to draw modern parallels: the 19th-century Nicaraguan Mo­­d-ern­­ist writer Rubén Dario; the important Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos; or the concentration-camp survivor Primo Levi.

In particular, he uses words from the social activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980), leader of the Catholic Worker Movement in America, and an explosive poem evoking Mary's washing of Christ's feet, here a gesture fusing the erotic and the spiritual, by the modern writer Louise Erdrich (b. 1954).

Sellars's own description is per­tinent. He has sought, he says, "to set the Passion story in the eternal present, in the tradition of sacred art - meaning the practice of medieval and Renaissance painters, in the manner of Brueghel (and still common today), of setting biblical scenes against a background where the costumes are patently from their own era".

Sellars semi-staged the perform­ance, but, while compacted, it had the power of a full-scale production. The characters behaved modestly and demurely, a bit like the 12 young Apostles in The Last Supper. In particular, three beautiful-toned countertenors act as sidling narra­tors of the action, delivering Christ's words and interacting with Martha and (especially) the phlegmatic  Mary.

The sense of a family tragedy played out, with Jesus effectively a member of this emotionally charged modest Jewish household, is beau­tifully and tenderly explored. Mary is the visionary; Martha is the steadying hand. Alongside the tenor Russell Thomas's dazzlingly sung emergent Lazarus (a dress rehearsal, Sellars urges, for Christ's resur­rec­tion itself) - Thomas also haunt­ingly assumed the role of Jesus for the Holy Week sequence - both sisters' roles were sung by stupen­dous American mezzo-sopranos (so that five performers had broadly the same range): Mary by Kelley O' Connor, Martha by Tamara Mum­ford. Each has a wonderful lower register, which Adams exploited. It was the awesome talents of this trio of singers which lifted this gripping oratorio to a whole new level.

Unlike some, I thought the three dancers expressive but imprecise. One could not say that about the orchestra, the Los Angeles Philhar­monic, resplendent in all sections, under the remarkable young Ven­ezuelan Gustavo Dudamel: simple and restrained to a fault, Dudamel showed what miracles can be ac­­hieved by a conductor who declines to put himself garishly in the fore­front.

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