In February, the San Francisco Symphony performed The Gospel According to the Other Mary by composer John Adams with libretto by Peter Sellars. The event was part of the celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday.
[Photo courtesy of San Francisco Symphony]
The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a monumental opus, over two hours in length and featuring a full orchestra, chorus, and staging with the principal singers. The orchestra also included some additional interesting instruments, including this large collection of gongs.
As implied by the name, the libretto is drawn heavily from the New Testament, specifically the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany whose brother Lazarus is raised from the dead by Jesus. But it also incorporates many other modernist elements. The story moves back and forth between the Biblical setting and a more contemporary setting, weaving in scenes of women protesting as part of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers’ strikes, and Mary witnessing a fellow inmate in jail suffering through a painful drug withdrawal. The setting of Mary and Martha’s home is depicted as a women’s shelter that would not be out of place in any large American city. And the milieu surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion is a modern urban uprising, complete with police sirens.
Another unusual element in this telling of the story is that Jesus is never specifically shown on stage as a character, although he is sometimes represented by a trio of tenors who also act as something akin to a Greek chorus. The full symphony chorus meanwhile acts as a tertiary level of narration, with Biblical quotes, Latin phrases, and more contemporary sources in English and Spanish. All of this makes for a complex setting around the main characters on stage: Mary (Kelly O’Connor), Martha (Tamara Mumford) and Lazarus (Jay Hunter Morris). Mary is the central character – she is listed as “Mary Magdalene” in the program although biblically she is not the same character as Mary of Bethany – introducing the piece and then reappearing frequently with long arias and monologues. Martha is the solid rock providing structure but also her own story running the shelter and caring for her sister and brother. Both women are portrayed as major “fan girls” of Jesus, excited when he comes to town, but each in their own way. Lazarus comes across as a bit of a skeptic and in one scene questions and challenges the somewhat amorphous Jesus.
The simplicity and familiarity of the central story combined with the complexity of the visual and sonic setting make for a compelling performance – even those who cynically eye-roll at “yet another musical setting of Biblical texts” should be impressed by this work. It is also a departure from earlier compositions by John Adams – he is best known for his minimalist works, similar to that of Steve Reich but with a softer tone and west-coast source materials. But there is nothing soft about this piece. It is dark, angry, anguished at times, especially during Mary’s multiple scenes of personal anguish and confusion as well as the tense scenes leading up to the crucifixion. The modern elements blend effortlessly with the biblical elements and help to bring home to brutality and harshness in both contexts.
The two-hour-plus length did seem a bit daunting at first (there was an intermission between acts), but it actually went quite quickly as were were wrapped up in the many aspects of the performance. Overall, it was a great experience and I am glad we were on hand for it. As this is Adams’ 70th birthday year, we are looking forward to hearing more performances of his music, new and old.