The Gospel According to the Other Mary

“[t]he Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”

– Charles Jennens (referring to now-famous libretto he provided to George Frederic Handel)


And I mean it both ways: as invocation and exclamation. I just witnessed what I believe will be one of the greatest musical-theatrical works of the 21st century, and it's only 2013!

It seems strange to look back and realize that El Nino premiered in 2000. I don't think composer John Adams originally conceived it to be presented dramatically, but I guess his longstanding collaborative relationship with director Peter Sellars inspired them to turn this story of Christ's birth into an "opera." And now, they have looked at the last part of Jesus' life in order to create The Gospel According to the Other Mary. It unfolds very much like a Bach Passion with an Evangelist (here the three countertenors serving as narrators), the characters (Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha, and their brother Lazarus), as well as the chorus (they provide both commentary as well as step in to take part in the action).

So the "Other" woman is Mary Magdalene, too much maligned to me it seems. I remember my sister and I going to our first musicals as children. A trio of shows was touring to Beavercreek, Ohio's Nutter Center, and for whatever reason, our parents bought us a pair and let us go to each by itself. We must have been quite young, maybe 13 and 11. Anyway, as we entered the building a man yelled at us and handed out pamphlets. I'll always remember my sister's innocent voice asking the question (and, in case you are wondering, this really happened): "Karen, what's a whore?" We were going to see Jesus Christ Superstar, and some Christian protesters had come out of anger that Mary Magdalene, portrayed as a prostitute, could love and be loved by Christ in a physical/romantic way. My instinct was to protect my sister who would probably never have picked up these overtones from the storyline anyway. What an education...

Anyway, Peter Sellars has extrapolated the Other Mary's side of the Passion story: how it was Martha who tended to the household duties while Mary sat at Jesus' feet, how Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, how the women witnessed the Crucifixion, how they came to the empty tomb and finally realized that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead.

With these biblical texts and stories [like Bach, he uses the vernacular which, for us Americans, is English] he adds other poetry [some in Spanish] to construct two multi-scene acts.

Walt Disney Concert Hall was not designed to present opera, so everyone has come up with creative solutions to handle the additional (non-musical) aspects of this production. The costumes were relatively simple, mostly relaying the story through color (blues for Christ's tight knit community, white for the resurrection). The only set pieces were a few platforms and boxes that "became" the table in the Upper Room, Golgotha, the tomb.

I am no movement expert, but it seemed that Mr. Sellars was using both a kind of sign language (certain gestures to reinforce certain words, e.g. "spices" was reflected in the picking up of spices with one hand from another and bringing them to the face/nose as though you would smell them) as well as a lot of intricate movement brought off beautifully by several dancers.

The dancers could either serve as individual characters or, this I thought was even more unique and powerful, as a sort of visual reflection of the inner spirit of a singing character. The woman most often moved alongside Mary, as companion hand-in-hand, as the inner "life force" compelling to move, and in numerous other ways.

The men both could relate to Lazarus and Jesus. Both were incredibly powerful men with very physical choreography, and the death and resurrection scenes (first of Lazarus and then of Jesus) were particularly poignant and provided the arch structure of each act.

John Adams' orchestration was colorful without trying to make a point of it. The use of electric bass was particularly enveloping and effective; the percussionists had many opportunities to shine; and then after many of the most agitated moments there were such expanses of calm and breath. The pacing was wonderful.

Of course the cast was tremendous. I've now been honored enough to hear the legendary Kelley O'Connor live (twice in just about six weeks I think). Dr. Dehning and all of USC is so proud to call her one of their own. Such a great voice and a very engaging actress. Tamara Mumford was one of the most lovely contralto voices I've ever heard - low notes that sound sweet and rich and just as colorful as the rest of her range. I've been told the three countertenors are Indiana people. Go Hoosiers! Russell Thomas as Lazarus also acquitted himself very well.

I could have used a touch more of Kelley's voice in the amplification (it seemed more present in the short rehearsal I observed Tuesday), but otherwise balances were as pretty sweet as they could be.

The Master Chorale was tremendous. One should expect no less. They held their own as actors as well as the fabulous singers they are. Many of the aleatoric effects asked of them were eerily expressive. I really want to see a score. Congrats to each of the 48 members as well as to their fearless leader Grant Gershon, who will be conducting Friday night's performance.

It is hard to imagine being in Maestro Dudamel's situation. The demands of his profession and then demands of home and country must have weighed on him in the last few days, but he was as gracious as ever to deflect and distribute praise all round. That is real grace under fire.

All this to say, if you can see it, go. I think they'll probably release a recording next year, but going to a performance is the 3D immersive experience. I know I'll treasure this night for a long time.