JOHN ADAMS: The Gospel According to the Other Mary – Los Angeles Philharmonic/ LA Master Chorale/ Kelley O’Connor (Mary Magdalene) and other soloists/ Gustavo Dudamel – Deutsche Grammaphon (2 CDs)

JOHN ADAMS: The Gospel According to the Other Mary – Los Angeles Philharmonic/ Los Angeles Master Chorale/ Kelley O’Connor (Mary Magdalene)/Tamara Mumford (Martha)/Russell Thomas (Lazarus) /Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings & Nathan Medley, countertenors/Gustavo Dudamel – Deutsche Grammaphon 479 2243, (2 CDs) 133:03 (3/11/14) ****:

John Adams and his brilliant librettist Peter Sellars have created in The Gospel According to the Other Mary a multi-layered and philosophically complex work that is structurally – and as described – a “passion oratorio in two acts.”

Indeed, the setting is that of the last days of Jesus Christ leading up to his crucifixion. Unlike any other setting of the Gospel writers’ Passion texts, including most modern ones, Sellars’ text does not recount the well-known story of the betrayal, arrest, trial and execution. Rather, the events are referenced and alluded to through the use of a variety of written sources including all four Gospel writers. Jesus is not a character and his words are not a part of the narrative.

As the work’s title implies, the perspective here is that of Mary Magdalene and her siblings, Martha and Lazarus. In Christian research and related circles, much has been written about the possible existence of a rather complete Gospel written by Mary and why it had never found its way into the common dogmatic lexicon.

Sellars’ libretto relies on a certain amount of narrative flow from the three countertenors, whose voices in Adams’ mind and music becomes ethereal, closely harmonized and have a sound that walks a line between being other worldly (deity-like) and just a bit unsettling.

I have read other reviews of this work that take a certain amount of issue with what some could construe as a para-feminist approach and its reliance on Hispanic poetry and context to place the work in a world such as Los Angeles or to – at least – acknowledge the reality of a deeply traditional Hispanic Christianity that responds to the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ in ways that other cultures may not be as able to assimilate.

Lastly, the libretto does make use of some wholly intriguing sources, such as the Christian-Feminine perspective of poet Louise Erdrich, the essays and journals of early twentieth century Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, twelfth-century abbess and mystic Hildegard von Bingen and others. I find the highly eclectic nature of Sellars’ literary sources intriguing and the finished work does place the story in a religiously stimulating context. At the core of the story, it raises at least the question of how much personal friendship existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s family?  Were they, as a group, almost social revolutionaries trying to help the Jews overcome oppression?  Was Lazarus murdered and why? Was he miraculously resurrected and why?

The libretto makes no overt attempt to present what anyone should interpret as an alternative view of Christianity. If anything, it suggests what some might see as an “expanded” view of the life of these people, seen through the eyes of Magdalene.

In my opinion, the work succeeds highly. This is, for me, one of John Adams’ best works. I have heard them all; many of them live, and have been an admirer for forty years. His work ceased to fit the too-convenient label of “minimalism” quite some time ago. This score is filled with many of his characteristically colorful uses of the orchestra and a harmonic palate that is wide, expressive and which paces the emotions of the action and the texts in a way that one cannot help but be moved. This is seen as a companion piece to his Christmas oratorio El Nino; which also raises interesting thoughts (in that case, the mind and role of Joseph, the husband of Mary; the mother of Jesus) and – again – in a rather Hispanic cultural milieu.

I believe – strongly – that this work that makes over two hours seem like nothing for its intensity is one of John Adams’ greatest accomplishments. I take no issue with him, nor Sellars, not being female and not being of Hispanic heritage. If anything, I find that to be a moot point in light of the finished product. One can listen to this amazing piece as a practicing Christian and follow every word and think over and over again about what things were actually like for Mary Magdalene. Or, one can listen somewhat oblivious to the text and just let this very rich, complex, often moving and sometimes unsettling score involve you.

I cannot imagine that it would not. I hope, sincerely, that a DVD of the semi-staged rather pantomime-like live performance as created by Adams and Sellars will be available soon – as it is for El Nino – because both of these startlingly effective works benefit all the more from seeing the actions and faces of the performers.

The LA Philharmonic and Chorus under Gustavo Dudamel perform as one of the world’s great orchestras that they are. All soloists in this production are amazing and the sound from the DGG engineers is up to its expected high standards. Highly recommended!

—Daniel Coombs

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