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Cumbered with much activity

05 December 2014

Roderic Dunnett on an operatic version of the home at Bethany

© ENO/Richard hubert smith

Seraphim tell the story: a moment from The Gospel According to the Other Mary at the London Coliseum

Seraphim tell the story: a moment from The Gospel According to the Other Mary at the London Coliseum

AS ITS semi-staged première under Gustavo Dudamel at the Barbican Centre in London demonstrated in 2013, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is an oratorio stageable as a series of tableaux that centre on Christ's relationship with Mary Magdalene and her two siblings, the industrious Martha and the less fortunate Lazarus.

Its progenitors are both American. The text is by the stage director Peter Sellars, who is well-known for his provocative but always brilliant and intelligent interpretations of, not least, Baroque and modern opera. The music is by one of the truly important composers of our day, John Adams.

As with the semi-staging, whose central platforms and blockings were directly echoed here, the narrative is sometimes underlined, sometimes interrupted, by dance and by action - indeed, in places, by hyperactivity, it felt. Despite the unerring beauty of the set, the lighting, and the characterisation, the flurry of motion sometimes made it bewildering to divine exactly the points that the production was making.

At times, scenes from the Gospel story are told with a moving razor-clarity. The narration - shared with a wonderfully poised trio of countertenors ("Seraphim"), Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley, whose poignant delivery was so successful in the semi-staged version - is crystal-clear. The capers of dancers who "mirror" (or counteract) Martha, Mary, and Lazarus can tend to muddy rather than clarify things.

Sellars draws lavishly on others to create a powerful verbal commentary. One of these is Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a women's suffragist, radical, and fighter for social justice, and the founder of the 1930s Catholic Worker, and of a centre of hospitality akin to the one that Mary and Martha run here. Another is the feminist poet, educator, and champion of the dispossessed Rosario Castellanos (1925-74). Her words were also used in Adams's 13- section Millennium nativity oratorio El Niño.

He also draws on the Harlem-born black feminist poet, defender of the underprivileged, and civil-rights activist June Jordan (1939-2002); and the Minnesota-born (in 1954) Native American writer and novelist Louise Erdrich ("I will drive boys to smash empty bottles on their brows. I will pull them right out of their skins").

There were several heroes and heroines in this unforgettable performance. Top of my list is the exciting young Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro, Music Director in Berkeley, California. She is an astonishing new find for ENO. Her hold on orchestra and singers was vital and confident. Superlative effects were produced: haunting violins, wan horn, a strumming of what I took to be cimbalom, the use of gongs, melting oboe for Mary's protracted aria, Stravinskian woodwind detail, and sneery clarinet obbligato that underlined the agony of Golgotha and the midday darkening ("He rolled back into the clouds and slept apart"). Even the two or three passages in which Adams, an endlessly inventive composer, slips deliberately into more or less unfettered minimalism were charged and intense.

Many of the multifarious lines that Sellars employs in what the programme described as "this rich textual tapestry", clutter apart, have special refinement, and are comparable to a Handel opera, or Bach's Passions, with their optimistic and visionary upper-voice arias. The fusion of modernist ingredients provides an element of oddity, even shock. In the preface to Act II, a "searing night vision" is inspired by an Expressionist mural of the Mexican, José Orozco, a contemporary of Diego Rivera, and by Erdrich's graphic poem that includes the lines: "Who rips his own flesh down the seams . . . who chops down his own cross, who straddles it, who stares like a cat, . . . whose torso springs of wrung cloth".

Here, Jesus tears himself from his cross, chops it down with an axe, and, "blazing with the phosphorescent colours of the New World, demolishes all hierarchies. He buries his parents alive, and sets out for Beirut and for Damascus, where restless and hungry crowds are gathering in the streets demanding change." It is a charged moment meant, I imagine, to have a greater impact than it had.

James F. Ingalls's lighting played a big part. Although at times it seemed to coast well-meaningly from one cyclorama colour to another, the impact was strong, both warm and cold. Striking use of reds, yellows, and midway oranges offset the use of other colours such as turquoise to underline the other-worldliness of Lazarus's loss; glaring green for a violent police raid; and one astonishing moment when Ingalls broke through the colour surround to place a pure lighting spot directly on the (still) pink face of Lazarus at the moment of death. This was a brilliant detail showing awesome artistic and technical skill.

Besides some magnificent choral singing (recalling occasionally Tippett's large-scale spirituals) and a magnificently arresting brass interlude, there were powerful performances from the three central singers. Combining Lazarus, Christ, and narrator (these doublings of role could be confusing), the tenor Russell Thomas proved himself yet again a performer of stage presence and exciting voice.

Patricia Bardon sang Mary - here, a woman who has attempted to take her own life - and brought to her tenderness and empathy ("I love you to my farthest limits: to the trembling tips of my fingers, to the vibrating ends of my hair"). The erotic element seemed wholly appropriate to this sister whose seeming spendthriftness Jesus defends and explains, and who is desperate at his arrest (here switched to Bethany), and then grieving and rapt, respectively, in the Burial and final Recognition scenes.

Adams's writing of atmospheric monodies is one of the finest aspects of this involving score; so are some telling word repetitions ("Come and see"; "Take away the stone. . .") and interspersed psalmic passages.

Arguably most touching of all, however, was the dominant but pained figure of Martha, to which the contralto Meredith Arwady, who has been an admired Mistress Quickly (Falstaff) and Erda (Das Rheingold), brought all the deep vocal qualities one associates with those roles. Her sympathetic characterisation, richly endowed with personality, was one of the highlights of this entrancing music and committed, visibly engaging production.

At the English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2, until tonight. Box office 020 7845 9300.

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