The Gospel According to the Other Mary

I don’t usually write reviews, but it’s really fun to go to a world premiere and share thoughts and feelings about a brand-spanking-new work of art. And, even though I resort to some hefty criticism below, I should note that I respect John Adams and Peter Sellars immensely, and I often defend their work in hyper-critical circles. Yet, I must be honest about my perceptions of a work of art as I see it.

Before I go into the critical portion of this post, I should offer some background. The piece is called, “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” an oratorio written by John Adams, set to a libretto by Peter Sellars. It received its premiere last night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The concert started at 8pm and ended at 11pm. To read more about this work on Adams’ blog, click here.

And here we go…

The first act totally missed the mark. Very dreary, sullen music that just kind of sat there, almost entirely within an octatonic context. I enjoyed the first 15 minutes or so, but the piece sank very quickly thereafter. However, in the second act, that’s where all of the real music and drama happened. Half, maybe even more than half, of the audience left at intermission, but the second act was sublime, and people should have stayed for that. It was worth enduring the first act. This is sort of the opposite of El Niño (Adams’ other oratorio), as the first half of that piece is incredible, but the second half, dreary…yet again.

There are three reasons the first act didn’t work.

1. Adams’ solo vocal writing these days is pretty much extended recitative, and consequently has no capability of driving actual drama. Adams attempted to create drama with the orchestra and chorus in the first act, but both roles were secondary to the soloists (so much [bad] text to get through!), and so they were overshadowed by the high volume, undramatic, uninteresting, anti-lyrical solo vocal writing. Also, the way Adams repeats words, it’s so disconnected from the rhetorical effect of the text. Instead of repeating, how about some extended melismas? Make them sing!

2. The disconnect between the soloists and the orchestra is so obvious, so clear. There is no organic connection between the two.

3. The libretto is a disaster. I felt the same way about Dr. Atomic when I attended both the dress rehearsal and the premiere in San Francisco. Sellars is obviously not a librettist, and if Dr. Atomic didn’t prove it to the world, this piece certainly will. It is pieced together and does not create a cohesive dramatic whole, it lacks in emotional depth and energy, and the words themselves are unpoetic and un-singable. I really, really miss Goodman. She’s the real deal. I’m sure Sellars has some sort of cerebral justification for his choices, but the libretto does not work. It just does not.

Having said all of that…

It is true that the piece as a whole does not work, but, it has moments of true power. In the first act, the first chorus was wonderful, and I especially loved the resurrection of Lazarus. I always thought of that moment as a glorious one in scripture, but Adams makes it creepy, almost zombie-like with the babbling chorus. And, now thinking back on the story, it is kind of creepy to raise someone from the dead!

The second act was just powerful. Adams finally delivered some orchestral and choral pyrotechnics (75 minutes late, but better late than never!), and the death and resurrection of Christ was especially captivating. Again the babbling chorus (I love the relationship between both resurrections) is really effective here, and the way it leads to the end…the repeated “Mary, Mary, Mary…” Wow. It was beautiful. It was the first time in the piece that I had a real emotional response. I can’t remember the exact musical details, but it was stunning. Just stunning.

And the cimbalom! WOW! What an effective use of such an exotic sound. Adams went to town with that instrument, and Chester Englander did an amazing job (as did all of the performers). Actually, the orchestration, in general, was incredible. This piece shows a marked growth in Adams’ already masterful approach to orchestration. He demonstrated an entirely new level of orchestral innovation, and the piece on that level (which is no small feat) is a true marvel.

So, all-in-all, as a dramatic vocal work, “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” falls quite short. But, so much about the work is marvelous, so I wouldn’t dare consider it to be “bad.”

And, no matter what I think of this work (or Dr. Atomic), I think that Mr. Adams is great. He’s an amazing composer, I love most of what he’s written, and I will forever honor that as a supporter of his music.

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