Monday, June 4, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "A Body Transfixed by the Noonday Sun" (on Peter Sellars' and John Adams' The Gospel According to the other Mary)

a body transfixed by the noonday sun
by Douglas Messerli

Peter Sellars (libretto, based on Old and New Testament Sources and texts by Dorothy Day, Louis Erdrich, Primo Levi, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordon, Hildegard von Binger, and Rubén Dario), John Adams (composer) The Gospel According to the Other Mary, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel / the performance I saw was on Saturday, June 2, 2012

 The new opera-oratorio by John Adams and his often-time collaborator Peter Sellars, if nothing else—and there is a great deal more to be said for this work—is a serious and mature contribution to orchestral and vocal music of the 21st Century. Focusing this work on a woman, Mary Magdalene, the "other" Mary (Jesus' mother and Mary the mother of James being two further Biblical Marys), in legend from the town of Magdala, but in this version is described as being, along with her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus, from Bethany.

      The gospels mention her very few times, primarily in Luke and Mark; but her importance is clear, particularly through the apocryphal texts which refer to her several times. She is one of the strongest and most important women who was close to Jesus, remaining with him beneaath the cross until his death and accompanying his body to the sepulchre wherein he was buried. Most importantly, however, are the biblical texts that describe Mary Magdalene as the one who discovered that Christ had risen, reporting the  news to his doubting disciples. In connection with this role, particularly from the 10th century on, she is referred to as the "apostle to the apostles."

      Adams' and Sellars' piece recounts some of this biblical history, particularly Mary Magdalene's suffering at the feet of Jesus during the Crucifixion and her later discovery of the missing body, Jesus, who she mistakenly took to be a gardener, calling her by name, the event which ends the work. But through the libretto's collage of texts, this piece takes the Mary Magdalene our of biblical context and drops her into numerous Twentieth century contexts, presenting the two sisters first as women who have been arrested and jailed, later as women who run a "House of Hospitality" for homeless girls, and in the Second Act as women picketing along with civil rights activist and union leader César Chávez—a far different César from Caesar Augustus whose call for a census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for their child's birth.. This shuffling back and forth in time is an attempt, obviously, by the librettist and composer to link the immediate lessons of Jesus with those who carry his message forth into our own time. And in several ways their condensation of time successfully presents these two important women in Jesus' life in a role in which they embody Christ's teaching, while at the same time emphasizing—particularly in Martha's complaint of being forced to serve alone while her sister lies at the master's feet—the special role Mary Magdalene played in Jesus' life.

      Adams' music, particularly in the first act, as he follows these women's lives and the resurrection of their brother Lazarus, is lush and beautiful, his constantly shifting rhythms reflecting the pushes and pulls of the demands these special followers put upon Jesus. The composer's brilliant concept of carrying much of the narrative through the voices of three countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley) allows the story to move forward, while the central figures, Mary Magdalene (Kelly O'Connor), Martha (Tamara Mumford), and the strong-voiced Russell Thomas as Lazarus sing of their own psychological experiences and their personal relationships with Jesus.   

      From the beginning we come to understand Mary Magdalene as a woman of special intensity, having evidently attempted suicide and isolated herself from others after her brother's death—the injuries to her arm healed by the messiah—while later showering her love upon Jesus with the herbs and ointments with which she has bathed her hair and with which washes Jesus' feet. Far from the hard-working and more sensible Martha, Mary is clearly a woman of passion, as the women's chorus put it (in Spanish) "a body transfixed by the noonday sun," which becomes a metaphor of her love for and her personal relationship with Jesus. This Mary—without specifically being portrayed as a former prostitute—is very much an embodiment of Jesus' teachings about love.  

There are numerous powerful moments in the First Act, including the prophet Isaiah-inspired "Howl ye," sung by Lazarus and the Chorus, the passage in Spanish I just referred to ("En un diea de amor yo bajé hasta la tierra"), the intense Resurrection of Lazarus ("Drop down, ye heavens, from above"), again sung by the Chorus, Lazarus' own impassioned outburst ("For the Grave cannot praise thee,"), Mary's "I wash your ankles" and the Chorus's response ("Spiritus sanctus vivificans vita"), and the absolutely splendiferous Last Supper, sung by Lazarus ("Tell me: how is this night / Different from all other nights?"), a  piece, ending the First Act, which I almost hoped might never cease.

     Unfortunately, not all of the passages that Sellars chose for his collage are as excitingly poetical as those I mention, and, particularly in the Second Act, when the biblical narrative begins to dominate, so too does the music turn a bit turgid, occasionally reminding one of the numerous Hollywood film epics of Jesus' life and crucifixion. Here the Countertenors and their narrative-telling dominate, while the personal viewpoints of the work's three major figures is diminished by the swelling of larger events, including Jesus' own arrest and Mary's and Martha's agitated protests. Accordingly, the action is described in a kind of secondhand manner that effects not only the libretto but the music as well. Only with the Crucifixion, particularly in Scene 4, with Mary's recounting of the falling rain on Jesus' body, and Lazarus' interpretations of the dying Christ's words: "I want no shelter, deny / the whole configuration" does the work again reach the heights of the First Act. And both librettist and composter redeem this act with the stunning introduction of a resurrection of nature itself: "It is spring. The tiny frogs pull / their strange bodies out / of the suckholes," sung by both the Chorus and Mary. The final graveside encounter between Mary and the gardener who calls her name, is so marvelously understated that the audience with whom I saw The Gospel According to the Other Mary was not sure to applaud as Dudamel brought the orchestra to a quiet cessation.

      What I have said above, however, cannot to do justice to instrumental variations of this piece which uses numerous percussion instruments not usually to be found in modern-day orchestras, along with the employment throughout of the cimbalom, creating the sound of an instrument contemporaneous with the Biblical events. Some of the narrative difficulties, moreover, may be solved

when the production is transformed from a piece of the orchestra hall into a blend of opera and oratorio performance, which is planned for the future. I cannot wait to rediscover this work in its new form, but feel blessed to have experienced it in this early manifestation.

Los Angeles, June 3, 2012