The Gospel According to the Other Mary, English National Opera. Review by Julia Pascal.


John Adams’ latest opera, with libretto and production by Peter Sellars, is an episodic and experimental take on elements of the New Testament which mixes texts from radical liberation theology to parts of the King James’ Bible.

It is set in a barbed wire prison where the spare aesthetic is broken up by squares of light on floor and walls.  Each scene has its own seemingly unconnected narrative.  The action, if indeed this opera could be described as having any action at all, is fractured between the biblical myths and modern takes on the liberal Christian message.  This ranges from Mary helping a woman in the agonies of drug -withdrawal to a stage full of Cesar Chavez’s striking workers.  There is no cohesive dramaturgy in the eleven scenes but a cut and paste of several authors and images that loosely hang together.

However there is one neat idea which gives a clear musical and dramaturgical line.  A trio of male counter tenors are continuously present as a chorus of seraphim.  They offer a continuity of high male singing whereas Mary and Martha have the deep contraltos.  Certainly Patricia Bardon’s Mary and Meredith Arwady’s Martha are exciting performers and Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley give strong support.  Conductor Joana Carneiro added huge authority and her presence in the pit was so strong that she also seemed to be half onstage.

Despite this, the problem remains that this collage of poetic scenes lacks an arc.  There is hardly any dramatic trajectory rather this is a series of individual stage poems that do not add up to a satisfying whole either in production or musically.  In Act Two, Adams’ thrilling music in the orchestral scenes, such as Earthquake and Golgotha, is magnificent but, in Act One, the repetitive sprechgesang is deadly.  There are musical moments of utter brilliance and others of total boredom.

I also wondered about the staging.  The disparity in the stage pictures occurs particularly in the choreography.  No choreographer is credited.  There are moments of extraordinary stagecraft, when the magnetic flex- dancer, named only as Banks in the programme (and surely he deserves a biography?) body- pops as a counterpoint to the spirituality of the text but there are far too many other unstylised posings most particularly when women are endlessly hugging one another.

In this production it is the naturalistic staging that kills the shock of the more stylised.

The Gospel According To The Other Mary aims at an innovative interpretation of the Gospel but the sum of its parts makes it a mish mash without anything new to say.

Julia Pascal © November 2014.