The Gospel According to the Other Mary, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, November 2014

The ‘Other Mary’ in John Adams’ new work is Mary Magdalene, along with her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus, who work to help the poor and disenfranchised in mid-1970s America. To many in an English audience the name César Chávez, co-founder of what became the United Farm Workers Union, may not be well known. Beloved by the political Left, detested by the Right, Chávez fought for Mexican farm workers and against the brutally corrupt Teamsters Union, but though he is referred to in the libretto it is not immediately clear how he relates to the death of Christ in what is more a Passion oratorio than an opera.

Mary front, Martha behind, all images ENO/ Richard Hubert Smith

Mary front, Martha behind, all images ENO/ Richard Hubert Smith

As a Passion story, Adams and his partner Peter Sellars, responsible for the libretto and staging, have created a series of interesting tableaux. The death and resurrection of Lazarus is intriguingly portrayed with a spirit of life that appears from the back of the stage and comes forward to enter his body. Meanwhile Jesus himself is entirely absent in corporeal form, his words and actions represented by the chorus, three principals, their counterparts as three dancers, three counter-tenors (as Seraphim), and one extraordinary dancer named Banks, who represents the Angel Gabriel (according to the cast list, though one would not otherwise have a clue). He was superb in his slow, powerful hip-hop style, and it’s astonishing the programme contained no biography of him.

The principal singers were excellent. Patricia Bardon sang beautifully in the mezzo role of Mary, and looked terrific in her loose, white jumper and grey jeans. As her sister, contralto Meredith Arwady produced fantastic diction and a warm portrayal of the stable, dependable Martha, and Russell Thomas’s stage presence and robust tenor voice as their brother Lazarus made an impressive addition to the cast as the only masculine solo voice.

2.ENO GATTOM Company 1 (c) Richard Hubert Smith

Musically the programme notes compare this to the ‘nativity oratorio’ El Niño by Adams, which I have not seen, but much of Act I and parts of Act II reminded me his rather beautiful previous opera A Flowering Tree, which takes inspiration from Indian folktales. A dramatic difference occurred at the start of Act II involving the crucifixion, where the chorus pounded out their lines as if in Peter Grimes, but matters soon reverted to the gentle undulation of harmonies that are a mark of Adams’ work.

Slow movements on stage, interspersed with occasional lively action by the Angel Gabriel, were complemented by superb lighting from James F Ingalls, predominantly in yellow representing perhaps the desert of the southwest USA, or even the Middle East. The chorus, sometimes on stage, sometimes behind a transparent backdrop, contributed words and movement, and Adams has created this work as if he were an artist from the mid-1970s portraying the Passion of Christ with additional more prosaic material from his own time.

3.ENO GATTOM Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley, Patricia Bardon, Stephanie Berge (on floor), Banks (above) (c) Richard Hubert Smith

For those seeing Jesus as a political figure who would have taken the side of Chávez against the Teamsters this will doubtless resonate, and Adams and Sellars have wisely produced it in Europe, in a collaboration between the ENO, Theater Bonn and The Royal Swedish Opera, rather than in the USA. But the political message emphasised by Mexican costume designs and occasional choral singing in Spanish (as well as English and Latin) slightly gets in the way of what is otherwise a meditation on the family of Lazarus, the death of Christ, and finally the idea of rebirth in springtime to the gentle sound of frogs over the loud speakers.

The first night was a World Premiere, and performances continue on various dates until December 5 — for details click here.

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