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Review: 'Gospel According to the Other Mary' emerges reborn

John Adams has reworked his Passion/oratorio, Peter Sellars staged it and Gustavo Dudamel really brings it to life.

March 08, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Kelly O'Connor, left, plays Mary in Peter Sellars' staging of John Adams' "The Gospel According to the Other Mary."
Kelly O'Connor, left, plays Mary in Peter Sellars' staging… (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)

"The Gospel According to the Other Mary" is now another "Other Mary," the "Mary" we have been waiting for.

John Adams' Eastertide combination of Passion and oratorio was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and given its premiere late last spring at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Impressive and stirring as it was, the work felt a masterpiece still in the making. It was long (135 minutes rather than the 90 minutes expected) and unwieldy. It was delivered late and required a draining last-minute preparation for Gustavo Dudamel and the orchestra at the same time they were already overextended by staging Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

"The Other Mary" came back Thursday night, revised by the composer and now staged by Peter Sellars, who also compiled the libretto. The work's great ambitions have been realized. The L.A. Phil has shown yet again that it matters. Dudamel has risen to new heights as an interpreter. Though restrained, this was the most penetrating performance of anything I have yet heard him give.

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"The Other Mary" was not easy listening when it was given in concert, and it is not easy to watch staged either. The Crucifixion and Resurrection are depicted from the perspective of Mary Magdalene's suffering and also through the poetry and juddering experiences of more contemporary, mostly women, writers.

Sellars makes everything on stage abstract. He designed a very basic set of a wooden platform on one side of the stage and a table on the other. He has added to the trio of solo singers and the countertenors (who serve as narrators) a trio of dancers. The result is new, gripping expression on every level.

Adams noted at a pre-concert talk that he spent three months shortening and rewriting the oratorio. The show on Thursday was not appreciably shorter, still 135 minutes of music. The music was not substantially different. But the focus was. There was less force and more grace, the dramatic impact utterly sure.

The soloists were the same, but they have now lived the roles for a year and were, thus, changed. Sellars had mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor cut her long hair short, a controversial move. But not only did it add to her vulnerability as Mary, it made her facial expressions stand out with astonishing vividness. With the help of James F. Ingalls' precise yet restrained lighting, which captured the smallest subtleties of expression, O'Connor reminded me of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent film, "The Passion of Joan of Arc," one of the most affecting portrayals of human suffering in all art.

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Oscar-winning actresses could do well to study O'Connor's performance, with its shocking revelations of pain and the utterly convincing revelations of spiritual acceptance. That came through in the beauty of her singing, the way every word was given meaning, the look in her eyes and the way her hands moved.

She had exceptional help from the effusively rich contralto Tamara Mumford (Martha) and from Russell Thomas (Lazarus), whose tenor resounded like a force of nature. There was further help from Mark Grey's amplification, which highlighted the vocal essence of each singer and provided an ideal balance with the orchestra.

No choreographer is credited, but movement was very important and the dancers — Michael Schumacher, Anani Sanouvi and Troy Ogilvie — became integral. When the slighter Schumacher, for instance, carried the larger Sanouvi (yet another force of nature) on his back, the weight of Jesus' cross became something palpable.

There was lightness too. Dunya Ramicova's pajama-like costumes supplied one kind of color. The countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley), anything but vocally pale, added other kind of color. But the real color came from the orchestra.

As was apparent last year, Adams' score is true to a very broad range of theatrical and spiritual needs, and in its final form it now has, along with the power to produce shock and awe, the power to remove shock and awe. Sellars has never been more unforgiving in portraying dying and death, and Adams gives the director plenty of forceful music to work with.

But the essence of "The Other Mary" is rebirth. Adams' representation of it, whether in the most beautiful Passover scene in all of music or the delicate orchestral effects describing baby frogs bursting forth from suckholes, are musical reasons to embrace life.

As the mastermind behind the performance, Dudamel did little to draw attention to himself, but a performance of this caliber didn't, like the frogs, come from nowhere. The L.A. Phil sounded inspired from beginning to end. The Los Angeles Master Chorale, which was placed on a long platform behind the orchestra, added a further irreplaceable dramatic dimension.

With Dudamel called back to Caracas to conduct at Hugo Chavez's funeral, the Master Chorale's music director, Grant Gershon, will conduct "The Other Mary" Friday at Disney Hall. Dudamel returns for the final Sunday performance and then takes the work in its full staging on the orchestra's hugely ambitious tour next week to Europe and New York City. This is too big just for us.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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Los Angeles Philharmonic

What: "The Gospel According to the Other Mary"

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown L.A.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $66 to $187

Information: (323) 850-2000 or http://www.laphil.com

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