A more appropriate title for John Adams’ latest operatic oratorio would be The Gospel According to the Other Peter, for it is Peter Sellars, the composer’s regular collaborator, who sets the tone and runs the show. A Passion in 21st-century clothing, it uses the Easter story as a vehicle to propagate Sellars’ all too familiar political agenda – social injustice, the rights of the oppressed, the inequalities of wealth and gender, the demonising of state authority. Its European premiere on Saturday, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, made a suitably showy centrepiece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s London residency. They will repeat their performance tomorrow at the Lucerne Easter Festival.
The basic premise of The Other Mary is sound. As in El Niño, the Adams/Sellars take on the Nativity, it fuses the Gospel story with scenes from modern life, in a way that is designed to radicalise an all-too-familiar tale. But Sellars – quintessential American armchair liberal and voluble campaigner for women’s rights – can’t stop preaching. His libretto turns female also-rans in Christ’s entourage into protagonists, reads all kinds of modern agendas into their behaviour and reduces Christ to an absentee, his actions represented by multiple third-person voices. Worst of all, Sellars enters disputed theological territory by confusing Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, with Mary Magdalene, the reformed prostitute.
The show is further hampered by what have become clichés of Adams/Sellars music drama – jerky minimalist choruses, semaphore gesturing. At times we seem to be hearing snatches of Nixon, Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic all rolled into one in a hug-fest of phoney spirituality. When Adams does get his teeth into a dramatically inspiring text, as in the final Act One soliloquy for Lazarus (Russell Thomas), or Mary’s Act Two nocturnal fantasy (Kelly O’Connor), or the otherworldly “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” (LA Master Chorale), he shows us the giant scope of his musical imagination. The rabble of Golgotha is vividly brought to life, and there’s an atmospheric role for gypsy dulcimer. But even Adams cannot “personalise” characters who speak like politicised muppets.