Have you heard the good news? The Los Angeles Philharmonic have recently formed a partnership with the Barbican, and they were strutting their impressive stuff in London last week for their first International Associate Residency. Also: Christ died for our sins and was reborn.
This second point is, of course, precisely what all passions are about, and John Adams and Peter Sellars' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which here received its European première, is indeed a passion. But I was still a little taken aback by the force with which this piece rammed home its religious agenda; whether or not this is deliberate on the part of its creators, it certainly came across as preachier than I had expected, and while musically this was a superb evening, dramatically it seemed very flawed.
The piece focuses on various lesser-publicised incidents from the final weeks of Christ's life: the raising of Lazarus dominates Act I, and in alongside the traditional passion narrative in Act II is a scene entitled "Arrest of the Women" – not an episode which features prominently in most accounts, but consistent with Sellars' habit of engaging with female perspectives. This habit is also evident the choice of texts which he selected for the piece: they are by a similar pool of writers to those who informed this work's precursor, El Niño (2000), which tells the story of Christ's birth. Here, women including Hildegard of Bingen, Rosario Castellanos and Dorothy Day – the American social activist often associated today with soup kitchens – all figure prominently in the libretto.
What results from this unusual collection of texts and strange reconfiguration of the narrative is a dramatic work constantly at pains to remind its audience of the contemporary relevance of its story. Mary and her sister Martha set up a home for destitute women, forcing a parallel with more recent figures such as Day; the soldiers' brutality against women is also drawn into parallel with similar recent incidents. The dancers and singers, including the chorus, are all dressed in casual, contemporary clothes. It is all meant, presumably, to add a sense of immediacy, a visceral thrill to it all, but frequently the random shifts through time feel jolting, and the staging slightly primary-school. The awkwardness of the dramatic realisation is not aided by some rather clunky choreography – all impressive, given the little space available at the front of the Barbican Hall stage, and all brilliantly realised by the three dancers (and the singers too), but not inspiring; less still revelatory.
If all of this sounds unappetizing now, it didn't on Saturday night. I think this is my favourite John Adams score, and the orchestra and chorus, not to mention the soloists, were completely beyond reproach. The first half is especially scintillating (though slightly too long), with a sense of thrust which shows Adams' real skill as a dramatic artist. The high-point of this half is Lazarus' aria after Jesus brings him back to life, a phenomenal conglomeration of musical styles with immense energy and a hard, electric pulse. But what was fascinating about this aria was the sinister edge which lurked in the music as Lazarus, seeming possessed, extolled the virtues of his saviour: there was something questioning about Adams' setting in its relentlessness, something querying, rather than subscribing to, the idea of blind devotion.
Act II was a more demure affair, and not quite as effective for me; it didn't capture the spiritual highs it seemed to aim for, although there was still much to enjoy in the broader-than-usual orchestral soundworld Adams found throughout. A cimbalom was a prominent addition to the orchestra, and gave a bright, unusual hue to the texture, and the whole evening was a feast of inventive scoring from all the corners of the stage. It was interesting to hear Adams in the pre-concert talk discuss the revisions he had made since this work's first, unstaged performances last May (read Ted's review here) – I don't know how much has been changed, but it's very clear now that if the work overall is at fault, then Adams is not to blame.
Nor, of course, are the performers, all of whom were sensational. The Los Angeles Philharmonic are almost worth emigrating for, sounding clinical but also full, always immensely sensitive and alert to a reserved but incisive Gustavo Dudamel. The LA Master Chorale are the best chorus I have ever heard, by some distance, and they did utter wonders in this usually tough acoustic. And the soloists shone as well, with countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley spotless and sensuous as the trio of narrators, and mezzos Kelley O'Connor and Tamara Mumford both compelling in the highs and (many) lows of their vocal lines. Heldentenor Russell Thomas was a magnificently massive-voiced Lazarus, stealing the show in Act I to the effect that it was a shame that he wasn't given as much to do in Act II.
But what can anyone have Lazarus do during the crucifixion? For all its musical brilliance, this was an evening hobbled by its dramatic structure. My star rating is an average: the music deserves more; the drama less.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS
The Gospel According to the Other Mary at the Barbican © Keith Sheriff