The St. Louis Symphony Performance Of John Adams’ “The Gospel According To The Other Mary”, Friday, March 31st, Reviewed
After 9-11 there seemed no clear way forward of integration the terrorist attack into art: country music rallied round the flag, Bruce rallied around the firemen (his son would eventually become one), and nobody else much bothered. As the years rolled by, it seemed like a black hole of artistic achievement, nothing could get it right. And by today the question of proximity no longer makes sense. Perhaps, a branded epic of “11” with bodies tumbling from it, was too distraught, there was just no way to depict it without sinking… for the most part. John Adams, the great composer of classical music and opera, was commissioned by Lincoln Center to write a piece about 9-11 and the result was “On The Transmigration Of Souls”, a 25 minute composition for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, and pre-recorded tape. Adams, who also wrote “Nixon In China” and “The Death Of Klinghoffer” and is, debatably, our greatest living composer, managed where so many failed by removing all sentimentality from his composition and, as he put it, making a “memory space”. The problem with tragedies that both touch and don’t touch you is that it leaves you intrusive and self-important (listen to Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” -not a stupid song).
At Carnegie Hall on Friday evening, after a lecture I caught the tail end of, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performed Adams’ passion play, “The Gospel According To The Other Mary”. With a libretto by the always redoubtable and frequent Adams collaborator, theatre director Peter Sellars, that uses texts from “Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible and from Rosario Castellanos, Rubén Darío, Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, Hildegard von Bingen, June Jordan, and Primo Levi”. It does something similar to “Transmigration,” it makes the opera-oratorio bereft of sentimentality. By showing the story of Jesus (it takes place a few weeks before his death to his resurrection) from the position of a woman who loves him, doubts him, quite literally worships him, and is suicidal at his murder, it removes the pious and replaces it with the humane.
If you listen to Bach you can hear the difference between concord and dischords and if you listen to Jay Hunter Morris as Lazarus singing the praise of Jesus, as all living people must, the uplift is as great as possible. Whether you are Christian or not, the lifting forward in praise for the Christ’s greatest miracle of all is pure joy, it manages to make you feel how Lazarus might have felt at being brought back to among the living and how Christians feel today, while remaining elsewhere. It is the highlight of the first act, the second act is a terrible sorrow as Christ stays upon the cross till the end, where every hope is rewarded.
“The Gospel According To The Other Mary” (a mash up of Mary Magdalene and Mary Of Bethany) updates it to modern day California among the Mexican community. The sisters Martha and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters, are bickering because Mary won’t help her sister serve the visitors, and Martha complains to Jesus. It is this mundanity which sets the placing for Jesus to arrive four days after Lazarus death and be scolded by the sisters before bringing the man back to life. It is both huge and small (like Christ himself) featuring the 40 piece SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) Morris and the other two leads, Mezzo-Sopranos Kelley O’Connor (as Mary) and Michaela Martens (as Martha),3 countertenors, 3 flutes, 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, percussion, harp, piano, cimbalom, bass guitar, sound design and strings. At the end of the opera Jesus is left calling “Mary” as Magdelena fails to recognize the Savior tending the garden near his tomb and the strings swell as one. Adams explained how where he lived many Mexicans were gardeners and that is why he wrote it so. But, as this is Mary’s telling of the story, how else can it end?
The music is both powerful and magical but it is not like Bach, it isn’t romantic, it isn’t tuneful, there is an atonal edge and it is all threat: Jesus himself is under constant attack, a constant barrage of condemnation where he has to address his disciples for condemning Mary for anointing his feet. The overwhelming sense here is of a Christ who can’t win for losing, who can save the world but the part of him that is human, is being screamed at all the time. It is so tense it makes your fingers tingle, and Mary, who is torn between suicide and an adoration so complete she might as well be dead, sees both sides of the Christ and it drives her crazy till the end where, finally, the story is resolved. At the start the bickering of sisters places Jesus in the midst of human messiness but he grows steadily out of it, leaving their concerns in his wake as he emerges as this towering figure, this greatest figure of them all. The dead can’t praise him, only the living can praise him. The crucifixion drops the voices out so it becomes just Man and God, God watching his son impassively till the sound shakes the hall, like the earthquake Adams cheekily adds at the end (being from Cali, he is tempting providence).
The conductor David Robertson of the St. Louis Symphony is more MC, he is so moved by the music he is conducting that he sings along, he moves his orchestra with his baton like a wizard and like a wizard he uses his magic wand to make miracles from this huge assembly. It is a real performance and, sadly, he is to retire in 2019.
“Mary, Mary, Mary…” One final incantation and it is done.