Last night was the world premiere of the staged version of John Adams' The Gospel of the Other Mary, dramatically performed by the LA Philharmonic and conducted by the passionately precise Gustavo Dudamel. John Adams' oratorio could not be more different in tone, style and characterization from Mark Adamo's upcoming opera The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Mark's Mary Magdalene is rooted in a deep engagement with the Gospel of John and the Gnostic texts Pistis Sophia, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Dialogue of the Savior as well as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. His vision is of a wealthy, beautiful, passionate, spiritual leader who embodies the archetypal energies of both Eros and Wisdom, Adams' Mary, on the other hand, is a troubled, tormented and emotionally disturbed activist in the libretto by Peter Sellars. While she is named in the script "Mary Magdalene", her character is more a composite of Mary of Bethany and the demoniac from the Synoptic gospels. She draws inspiration as well from farmworkers in Salinas under Cesar Chavez and modern political movements like Occupy. The focus of the story is very much on the relationships between the siblings, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. This Mary is dressed like someone you might meet in today's world at the Farmer's Market in Berkeley, prone to acts of self-mutilation.and living with the poorest and most marginalized in society. Her relationship with Jesus has the feeling of communal solidarity and sisterly loyalty rather than romantic intimacy. Her eros is directed to a mysterious female double with whom she dances, embraces and kisses. Self love or lesbian affair? Real or hallucinatory? This is but one of the many inexplicable (and for me, confusing) aspects of The Gospel of the Other Mary.
Despite being the title character, Mary is not the most interesting or memorable figure onstage in Adams' work. That distinction belongs to her brother. Sung by the magnificent tenor Russell Thomas and simultaneously embodied by Anani Sanouvi, a Togo born dancer currently residing in Amsterdam, Lazarus emerges as the heart of this two hour work. Sanouvi is a dancer dedicated to the preservation of traditional indigenous customs, and he can communicate volumes with every gesture. Through him , Lazarus' slow death and renewal were haunting and unearthly. His dance during the Last Supper was the high point of the evening. As the chorus shouted "Spiritus Sanctus" from the balcony ( with text by Hildegard of Bingen, but set by Adams to music that evoked the fierceness of, "O Fortuna" from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana), Sanouvi created a riveting scene of a man truly being taken over by a transcendent force and animated beyond his control. The only parallel I have ever seen is documentary footage of Haitians "mounted" by Loa spirits during Voudoun rituals. It was a mesmerizing scene.
Lazarus' resuscitation prefigures Christ's resurrection, an important thematic link. which has been observed by many a Biblical scholar. The parallel has never been brought forth so vividly as here, where the staging decision to have Russell Thomas (Lazarus in Act I) sing the part of Jesus dying on the cross emphasized the mirrored weight and poignancy of the two stories.
I suspect, after reading Mark Adamo's libretto, that the most affecting scenes of his opera will be the ones of greatest intimacy, the tender duets between Magdalene and Yeshua (Jesus) and between Magdalene and Miriam (Mother Mary) where ache, longing, wistfulness, regret, forgiveness and love form the subtle palette of emotions. In contrast, John Adams' work opens with a flood of blood red light, and indeed, it is most effective in the choral scenes where it expresses raw rage, ferocious power and brutal urgency. While The Gospel According to the Other Mary deviates substantially from the Biblical sources and tradition , it is true to one thing: it emphasizes sheer immediacy.
Both the San Francisco Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have dedicated considerable resources this season to bringing these utterly different Mary Magdalenes to the stage. This is a testament to how powerful and inspiring an archetypal force she is for our time and underscores the notion that Mary Magdalene is Everywoman, a screen on which we can each project our deepest hopes and longings. I suspect for Mr. Adamo, she is the hope for the healing of the sacred and secular; for Mr. Adams ( a self professed secular liberal humanist), she is a prophet who calls for a community of social justice.
Who is Mary Magdalene for you?