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A Hall Filled with Miracles

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/31/2017 -  & March, 24, 26, 2017 (St. Louis)
John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Kelley O’Connor (Magdalene, Mezzo-Soprano), Michaela Martens (Martha, Mezzo-Soprano), Jay Hunter Morris (Lazarus, Tenor), Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley (Countertenors)
St. Louis Symphony Chorus, Amy Kaiser (Director), St. Louis Symphony, David Robertson (Music Director and Conductor)

J. Adams/D. Robertson (© HDImageGallery.net/Michael Tammaro)

“I am surprised that I am beginning to pray daily. I began because I had to. I just found myself praying. I can’t get down on my knees, but I can pray while I am walking.”
Dorothy Day, from her diaries quoted in The Gospel According to the Other Mary

Having reached (and been celebrated for) the Psalmist’s “threescore years and ten” John Adams has reached for the Good Book. And the New York premiere of his own Passion Play displays the composer not only at the top of his form, but in the first half of The Gospel According to the Other Mary Mr. Adams offers a drama which is more dramatic than any of his operas.

The word “minimalist” is now an archaic one for the composer. This version of the Passion Play includes a huge chorus, orchestra, six soloists, and electronic equipment, but the composer knows his ensembles so well that, with a few oddities and longueurs, nothing is used to excess. What we have instead is a drama on the cusp of passion, hysteria, triumph, adoration and musical joy.

The subjects are simple and well known: the resurrection of Lazarus and the death and resurrection of Jesus. Lazarus appears and speaks. Jesus never appears, but his quotes, given by a Greek Chorus of three countertenors (looking like Mormon missionaries!) is enough. Mr. Adams’ longtime collaborator Peter Sellars (who had directed the first stage performances) here has a libretto not only from the Old and New Testaments, but with poetry and words from mainly female writers and activists (Dorothy Day, June Jordan, Rosario Castellanos, Primo Levi, Louise Erdrich). Those words, and the sudden–yet somehow instinctive–cuts from prison to contemporary situations (women in prison, Carlos Chavez’s workers) all appear in a production seemingly far shorter than is two-and-a-half hour duration.

Truth be told, the eponymous “Mary” is a puzzle. Jesus knew (besides his mother) two Marys. One was his disciple, Mary of Magdela; the other was the sister of Lazarus in Bethany, where Jesus would stay before visits to Jerusalem. Yet this was not a problem. Yes, we had Mary in jail going for a drug test at the very start, and we had Mary with her sister Martha in both their own home with the dying Lazarus and in a women’s shelter which the practical Martha supervises.

Yet in both, we had two women who cared, who were the epitome of questioning and utility (not epicene “symbols” but actual characters), and for whom we felt deeply. In fact, the washing of Jesus’ feet, with the expensive spikenard was a moment of sensuous loveliness, taken from the literal King James translation of the Bible.

And in this first half, not only do we follow the two women in anger (“Howl ye” shouts the chorus), but in disappointment and help as Jesus is summoned to lift their brother to life. The music is not complex but is blatant, sometimes chaotic, and often religiously inspired. In fact, at the start we have an aria by Martha which seems to harmonically follow a Bach recitative.

The ending of this first half is so gorgeous that one can see it played as a solo piece for any concert which can’t afford the huge ensemble. Here, the risen Lazarus gives the blessing before the Passover service. What the Jews know as “Ma’nish tanaw”: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

J. H. Morris/K. O’Connor (© Courtesy of the Artists)

Jay Hunter Morris sings it not only with heldentenor grandeur, but we understand it in three ways. First, as the ritual, second as the “difference” being the night before Jesus’ Crucifixion, third because the words develop into a feeling of earthly charity, earthly desires for all time. The music is idyllic, the night, the stars, the gentle atmosphere before what will be the most momentous death in history.

That climax of the first half surpasses everything in this oratorio. If I had any criticism, it would be the orchestral fluttering for the resurrection of Lazarus. One would hope something miraculous would be heard. Instead, it sounds frightening, eerie, more the music for Stephen King’s Pet Sematary than a miracle from the Bible.

The second has fewer choral and vocal pieces than orchestral interludes. Some are literal–an earthquake with fierce percussive power, the sound of frogs for Louise Erdrich’s poem, “It is spring and the little frogs...” Yet such “film music” is not out of place here. If it juts out here, it is hardly awkward (nothing is awkward in this great libretto/music). It blends in with the silences of the Crucifixion and the austere holiness of the final moments.

Not to give away the ending, but it is Mr. Sellar’s great moment. When the rock has been rolled away from the cave, when Mary (and the mother Mary) and Martha enter the cave, they don’t find the body. But instead of a ravishing ending, Mr. Sellars has created something of sublime simplicity. Mary has seen the caretaker, asks a question on the whereabouts of her Lord, and the caretaker (though the voices of the countertenors), says simply “Mary.”

It is a stunning moment from a stunning ensemble. Mr. Morris is, yes, the voice of a great singer in his Passover adoration. But with Kelley O’Connor’s Mary, we hear both doubt (in the Dorothy Day lines quoted at the top) and sorry and pity. Wth Michaela Martens’s Martha, a deeper darker mezzo-soprano, is the practicality of a woman of the world. And the three countertenors, in their close harmonies (and John Adams’ characteristic minor seconds), we have a perfection which embraces the entire performance.

Then we have the St. Louis Orchestra, which belies its place in Mid-America, as one of the esteemed orchestras of our time, with David Robertson, as always, exciting, dynamic and perfectly in sync with the production.

Like his El Nino some years ago, John Adams shows a creativity which transcends schools or studies or even religion. This is Passion music embracing two deaths and two resurrections. Yet it is music which questions and probes faith and prayer and good deeds and, yes, even miracles.

In this case, another miracle by John Adams himself. We had no “Amens” in this Passion play, so modestly I must add my own.

Harry Rolnick



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