One of the many facets of Christianity is a view of Jesus as the archetypal left wing radical, champion of the poor and dispossessed and scourge of the wealthy. It’s a view that has enormous appeal for many, and it forms the foundation of John Adams and Peter Sellars’ oratorio The Gospel According To The Other Mary, which blends the Passion story with a variety of other literary sources, mostly 20th century and mostly from the Americas. The work has been performed in concert before, but last night’s opening at ENO was its staged première.

© Richard Hubert Smith
© Richard Hubert Smith

Adams' makes a highly unusual choice of voices. There is a heroic tenor role for Lazarus, mezzo for Mary Magdalene, contralto for Martha and a trio of countertenors who play the narration role normally associated with the Evangelist. Jesus is not depicted individually: his lines are narrated mostly by the countertenors but sometimes by the tenor. An ENO chorus, at fairly full strength, picks up crowd roles and makes various other vocal interventions.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) the absence of a low register soloist, it’s very effective indeed. Adams extracts a wide variety of vocal timbres, with the countertenors particularly notable in moments that are ethereal, elegiac or threatening. And we had a trio of outstanding singers in the lead roles, each with a huge voice capable of dominating the house, even above some serious competition from chorus and orchestra.

Russell Thomas © Richard Hubert Smith
Russell Thomas
© Richard Hubert Smith
For me, Russell Thomas produced the two outstanding vocal moments of the evening: the last supper scene that preceded the interval and the scene of Jesus’ arrest which followed it. Thomas’ career has been picking up Italian heroic roles of late (Pollione, Manrico, Gabriele Adorno and the like) and his voice has a glorious combination of warmth, legato and heroic abandon.

The distinction between contralto and mezzo may often be blurred, but not here. As Martha, Meredith Arwady shouldered most of the modern polemic material in the work: she packs astonishing power in the lower reaches of her range, with enough in reserve to put a lot into her diction and bringing across the anger in the lines. Patricia Bardon (Mary Magdalene) can also hit the lows, but her sweet spot is higher, with a meltingly smooth upper register. Both sang their roles with expression and clarity.

Adams and Sellars deliberately blur the lines between biblical and modern material, drawing parallels such as those between the arrest of Jesus and that of protesters on a California farm workers strike, or between the violent death of Jesus and the violent deaths of young men in deprived, drug-ridden neighbourhoods. If you’re not versed in modern American political literature, it helps to have read the excellent programme notes and I found myself regretting not knowing more about the work of such writers as Dorothy Day and Rosario Castellanos before the performance.

© Richard Hubert Smith
© Richard Hubert Smith
For the first half of the evening, the variety of colours in Adams’ orchestral palette was somewhat more limited than the range of vocal colour. There were interesting timbres, to be sure, with the cimbalom featuring prominently and much use of eastern style tuned percussion, but for the most part, the orchestration was thick and the rhythms insistent. After the interval, however, Adams’ orchestration thinned out, with far more use of the voices of individual instruments to paint colour. While I was impressed by the first half orchestration, in the second half, I started to really become part of the music, none more so than in the delicate scene of the dawn on the day of resurrection. Young Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro gave a stellar performance. Her conducting style is precise, dynamic and exceptionally easy to follow, with the result that the orchestral playing was incisive and vibrant throughout the work.

It’s not really possible to do a “full staging” of this work in the operatic sense: it’s not simple representational drama, and there’s too much shifting between eras and roles. Peter Sellars’ staging feels more like a choreography: the three principals execute dance movements themselves, while Mary Magdalene and Lazarus each have a professional dancer as an on-stage avatar. Chorus movements are highly choreographed, a third dancer depicts the Virgin Mary and a fourth (Banks, labelled in the programme as the Angel Gabriel) plays a significant role in many of the scenes. The result is attractive and provides plenty of visual interest, but at its core, this is a very wordy piece, and I’m not sure that any staging, however well executed, would ever be at the core of the experience.

The libretto of The Gospel According To The Other Mary is a strong telling of the gospel story, narrated from a feminist viewpoint and powerfully combined with modern themes in a way that I suspect will resonate more with some than others. The score is strong, some of the vocal writing is outstanding, and in this production, it features an outstanding young conductor and trio of singers. ENO have pulled off something of a coup in bringing us this Passion for our times.