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Go Ask Alice, I Think She’ll Know.

Notes on The Gospel According to The Other Mary by John Adams, libretto by Peter Sellars –

Having been offered tickets to the World Premiere by a westsider who couldn’t make it downtown through rush hour traffic, it was by surprise I found myself last Thursday night in the auditorium of Disney Hall listening to Deborah Borda discuss the future of a Major Work of Art, the new oratorio by John Adams and Peter Sellars, …a radically feminist political take(!) on the traditionally religious theme of the Passion of Christ: here, the Christ of Orozco, who chops down his own cross and crushes his mother with the stone he rolls away from his own tomb, rips her stained scarf from beneath it, ties it round his hip and goes sachaying off toward Damascus and some other mideast hotspots while badmouthing his dad (uh, God). Borda tells us this will become a fully-staged opera; it will be a work that will be performed again and again and again. There are echoes here of the bright sales talks given by execs at television network upfronts, but this is high culture bought and paid for by the ruling class, a point that is perhaps too obvious to mention, but in this case needs to be. It would be one thing if this oratorio were being presented at the REDCAT, but there is just too much of a disjunction at work here between lengthy passages devoted to farmworkers’ rights and women’s homes for the unemployed and the Harvard-educated composer and librettist and their wealthy patrons and benefactors. This is not Brechtian theater. There is too great an irony at play in the taking up of the “hysterical” and underclass womens’ voice by these two yuppie white guys to dismiss the softness of the seats in the orchestra of Disney Hall which coexist with the bleak economic prospects of our 20-something kids. Maybe too, this musical work so variously inventive and tedious, so scinitllating and soporific, leads one to wander off into musings on the unforgiveable disjunctions within our current state of economic and cultural affairs. The references to protest and suffering within this work, no matter how raw the language seemed to be, are always from a comfortable and palatable distance. (Well maybe not palatable enough for the 25% of audience that never returned from intermission.)

To digress, the opening salvo of the evening showed promise: a complex voicing of hysteria-sans-sopranos but fully schooled by mezzo Kelly O’Connor and hearty contralto Tamara Mumford,  and a trio of countertenors who would have stolen the show if not for the rousingly powerful tenor Russell Thomas and an energized, exciting Master Chorale. Any lesser singers would never have coached musicality from the severe score of Adams, that relies heavily on the familiar Adams recitative motifs, compulsively rhythmic and repetitive. ‘Gospel’ has fewer melodic hooks than Klinghoffer or Nixon, and no brilliant poetry to justify the Adams trademark phrase repetitions. Russell Thomas raw emotional power drives the Lazarus aria into a place of awe. Despite the energetic precision of Dudamel and the Phil, the first act falls into a sort of doldrum. Ultimately you are won over by the sheer intensity and invention of the orchestration in the second act. Ivesian moments like those during the Golgotha scene, where the Chorale is used as a murmuring crowd that grows closer until it is an angry, shouting mob were literally transcendant,  poetically and musically. The musical shockwaves of the second act–the simple pleasures of hearing what what was going to come next from the amazing percussion section–made the very long evening worthwhile, although there was still the matter of Sellar’s dramaturgically challenged libretto.

It’s necessary to question the genuineness of Sellars/Adams in relation to the spiritual and social themes they’re exploring. Adams musical practice is everything to him…his language and his being. As for Sellars, who has parlayed a great personality and a flair for the dramatic into a successful career… if you poke around  the web for his interviews etc you will be convinced his heart is in the right place, and that he truly has sympathy for hysterical feminist women who are willing to use very expensive product to clean the feet of men they admire. I certainly do not question his feelings about police brutality towards people who are on the right side of social justice.

What’s telling here, is that if you read the synopsis he writes on John Adams’ blog you find a narrative with potential, and you can see what he’s going for. Short, it moves through a series of scenes with decent dramatic potential  at breakneck speed. Tantalizing.  But as a libretto the story gets unfocused, dissheveled, and too long; a shambling digressive pastiche of other writers’ poetry, pasted between some flat-footed prose that often becomes cringworthy: lines like Mary Magdalene’s “I will drive boys to smash empty bottles on their brows“…”Girls get even with their fathers by wrecking(sic) their bodies on men.” So much for the post Freudian feminist side of Peter Sellars… [I think he meant to use the word wreaking, not wrecking]

In one of the few dramatically complex moments, at the ending of the oratorio,  Mary does not recognize Jesus after he has arisen from death. If the story were left there, with the sensual Mary, because of her groundedness in the mundane, lost to any opportunity to experience the sublime, this other/Mary would survive in our imaginations as an enigmatic,  flawed character of deep pathos.  But unfortunately she is saved by Jesus calling her name…everything’s fine now, she recognizes him!…and thus the passion ends in a queerly upbeat silence.

I could name several writers who could hit this material out of the park, and of course most all critics wish it were the talented Ms. Goodman. It is  certainly not the case that Mr. Sellars has spoiled a great piece of music, but Mr. Adams, attached for reasons we will never know but can pretty well guess, seems to have just let it happen. The music survives despite the libretto, and one can hope for some evolution as the opera goes into development.

 Photograph  Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / June 1, 2012


  1. Kay Austen says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments about the libretto. Why has Adams yoked himself to someone who can’t write? There are many points where Adams’ music “fights” against the libretto–and sometimes loses. With one writer like Goodman writing the libretto, Adams could have achieved greatness. Instead “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” is greatly flawed.

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