Dancer Anani Dodji Sanouvi, center, is surrounded by the cast during a rehearsal… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Perhaps the best way to describe "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" by John Adams is to borrow a phrase from the composer's frequent collaborator Peter Sellars, who wrote the libretto for the piece and is directing a newly staged production premiering Thursday at Walt Disney Concert Hall before traveling with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on its upcoming tour to Europe and New York.
"It's not something you would see at the Crystal Cathedral," Sellars said during an interview following a recent rehearsal.
A pithy assessment of the piece, as well as a massive understatement. "Gospel" is a spartanly staged, postmodern Passion drama that travels through time to evoke Jesus' suffering as well as those of various 20th century social activists. In many ways, it is the antithesis of traditional Passion plays such as the opulent "Glory of Easter" pageant that was once an annual event at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.
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"Gospel" is a new work, sort of. The piece had its world premiere last season by the L.A. Philharmonic in a concert version that ran 135 minutes.
It was not a rousing success. There were a fair number of walkouts during intermission and some critics, including The Times' Mark Swed, wrote that the piece had not yet reached its final form.
"We were doing things too slowly," recalled Sellars. "We only had 10 days of rehearsals. The paint was still very wet."
Since then, Adams has shortened the running time and made other modifications, including quickening the tempo.
The composer said in a separate interview that he often writes quickly and that "you make misjudgments in terms of playability. So I had to spend a lot of time refining the orchestral writing. I made several — let's call them edits, or cuts, in one of the scenes that I thought was dramatically a little overly long."
The composer said he was not particularly fazed by the less-than-thrilling reception of the piece last season.
"I know there were some people who left at intermission — they were probably not informed about the size and scope [of the work]. Sometimes people just don't know what to expect," Adams said.
He added that some of his pieces have taken years to get right. "'Nixon in China' — that took three or four years," the composer recalled. "'The Death of Klinghoffer' took several go-arounds." Sellars has directed past productions of "Nixon" and "Klinghoffer."
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For this iteration of "Gospel," rehearsal time has been more plentiful. The principal cast has been going over its parts with Sellars since November. This weekend's "Gospel" performances at Disney Hall run through Sunday and feature Gustavo Dudamel leading the L.A. Philharmonic and the L.A. Master Chorale. The performances will be followed by a tour to London; Lucerne, Switzerland; Paris; and New York's Lincoln Center.
Sellars has confined the action of "Gospel" to a series of raised platforms on which the main performers — including dancers — are crowded together in tight physical proximity. The modular staging is practical for a traveling production, but Sellars said it also evokes Renaissance religious paintings.
"It's the idea of a super-compressed image, where everything is flat and has no depth," he said. "Within that physical restraint, you can intensify the emotions."
The costumes were created using material from shops around downtown and East. L.A. — Judea by way of the 101 Freeway. "I like that everything came from within a 5-mile radius of Disney Hall," he said.
"Gospel" is a nonlinear story filled with time-hopping digressions. The story focuses on two female characters from the New Testament — Mary Magdalene (mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor) and her sister, Martha (mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford) — as well as the character of Lazarus (tenor Russell Thomas).
Their plight is mirrored in the struggles of 20th century activists such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
Adams uses a trio of countertenors as narrators, a musical device he previously employed in "El Niño," his 2000 oratorio about the birth of Christ. "There's something very pure about the sound. It's a virginal sound," he said.
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Prior to the interview, the composer's manager in New York had requested that no questions be asked about Adams' religious beliefs, or lack thereof. When asked about this condition, Adams said he doesn't "feel comfortable talking about [his faith] — no matter what I say, it comes out sounding wrong."