John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Kelley O’Connor (Mary Magdalene), Tamara Mumford (Martha), Russell Thomas (Lazarus), Daniel Bubeck (Narrator), Brian Cummings (Narrator), Nathan Medley (Narrator),
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (Music Director), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (Conductor)
Recorded at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California (March, 2013) –
2 CDs Deutsche Grammophon 4792243 with booklet essay and libretto in English
This recording is taken from the second set of performances of the piece. Less than a year after the world premiere, Adams significantly trimmed the score and his collaborator Peter Sellars added staging. For in depth reviews of those performances, please see here and here.
The piece is one that I continue to be fascinated by. It contains some of Adams’ most creative sonorities, yet it is unmistakably his. Full of allegory in an impressive amalgam of literary sources, it is a highly effective telling of Jesus’ passion through Mary Magdalene. What I was most curious about this recording was whether the piece would be as engaging without the visual component. Sellars’ staging featured three dancers that corresponded with the primary singers, as well as gestures for all, including the chorus. The performance was captivating both visually and aurally to the point of being nearly overwhelming. Would a CD have the same impact?
Surprisingly, yes, it does. The recorded sound is embracing and dynamic with an expertly formed soundstage. From Lazarus’ spine-tingling arioso “For the grave cannot praise thee,” to the other-worldly orchestral interlude portraying his resurrection, the details and balance of the forces (including electric bass and cimbalom) are impressively captured.
In fact, Adams’ music, now devoid of some of the repetitions of the world premiere, even benefits from a standalone aural treatment. While I found Sellars’ staging moving and illustrative, Adams’ piece is one of masterful narrative flow on its own. The transitions between scenes are organic with an orchestration that is truly impressive. That is to say nothing of the emotional potency of the music.
Adams’ writing for voice here is often athletic, occasionally intimate, but always well-measured. At the extremes of its emotiveness, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a piece that almost always carries the weight of its libretto with appropriate musical substance. Whether a text by Primo Levi or Hildegard von Bingen, Adams’ setting of the text is serious without being self-absorbed. Lazarus’ aria “Tell me: how is this night different” is a piece of soaring lyricism and likely Adams’ most affecting vocal aria among his output. The scorching choral excerpt, “Who rips his own flesh down the seams” is appropriately fierce, reminiscent of Bach’s portrayal of the bloodthirsty crowds in his own Passions.
Not only is Adams’ music a beneficiary of the CD-only treatment, the performers’ visceral performances are done exceptional justice, free of stage noise and any balance issues. Kelley O’Connor’s performance as Mary Magdalene is shattering. O’Connor’s confident musicality makes the extremely difficult, huge role seem second nature and the power with which she delivers the role is awe-inspiring. Her mature mezzo seems to have endless endurance. It is a performance that mesmerizes with the manic yet cohesive characterization that Adams and Sellars crafted.
Tamara Mumford as Martha has a noble contralto and is easily distinguished from the voice of her sister Mary. She sings with line and elicits the utmost sympathy, particularly in her aria “Up at two a.m., picketed all day.” Russell Thomas may be the biggest beneficiary of the outstanding balance on the recording. His stentorian performance of “For the grave cannot praise thee” is captured without a hint of fatigue in the tenor’s voice. The three counter-tenors, Bubeck, Cummings, and Medley sing well with crisp diction and impressive ensemble between them.
The L.A. Phil and L.A. Master Chorale are as much stars of this recording as anyone else. The Phil plays with their usual vibrancy and clinical proficiency in Adams’ syncopations. The Master Chorale sing with biting textual precision and fierce vocality. All work together in service of the drama. The estimable Gustavo Dudamel leads a driving performance. Mastering this score would be a technical challenge by itself and Dudamel delivers a reading that is more than proficient and ceaselessly moving.
There is something undeniably special about this work, captured so well in this recording. The energy and sincerity are present, but it is the piece itself that is so well crafted by the Adams and Sellars team that continues to fascinate. I’ll refrain from waxing poetically and leave it to you to decide, but this Passion is a transformative piece that will thankfully endure due to this marvelous recording.
Matthew Richard Martinez