It is only a few weeks since John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer was in the news for provoking outrage in New York. Now this staging of his oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary deserves its own place in the headlines, as a major event in English National Opera’s season and a heart-wrenching musical experience.
The oratorio’s premiere took place in concert in Los Angeles in 2012. Since then, performances have edged gradually through semi-stagings to this full production by Peter Sellars, the work’s librettist and Adams’s long-time collaborator – though audiences should be aware that this is still not opera as we know it.
The setting is an open stage bounded by barbed-wire fences and overlooked by security cameras. A harsh, 21st-century ambience may seem strange for a telling of the biblical Passion story, but that underlines Sellars’ purpose. By drawing on modern writers such as Primo Levi, Dorothy Day and Rosario Castellanos, he has unapologetically stamped a contemporary slant on the story – a political message of injustice against women and the poor. There is a danger this could all become a sententious jumble. The narrative runs on several levels, the main characters are confusingly duplicated by singers and dancers. It is also a tad disappointing that Sellars is content to settle for his usual mix of ritual gestures and dancing. But, as a whole, the staging provides a potent abstract framework.
Fortified by its images, the music sweeps all before it. The distance that Adams has travelled from his minimalist beginnings to this rich tapestry of a score is remarkable. Some of the passages for orchestra alone, such as Lazarus’s death, ride on waves of emotion; and Adams has mastered the ability to keep the audience gripped over hour-long arcs of intensity. Patricia Bardon as Mary Magdalene and Meredith Arwady as her sister make superbly contrasted mezzos. Russell Thomas is the high-intensity Lazarus and three counter-tenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley) jointly weave a sinuous line as the Seraphim. Joana Carneiro conducts the ENO orchestra and chorus on fine form. Is it opera or oratorio? It hardly matters. Just surrender to the work’s overwhelming flood of emotion.