In a perfect colossally Minimalist world, where resources and rehearsal time are no object, the Los Angeles Philharmonic might have concluded its Minimalist Jukebox festival Sunday with a revival of John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary.” It happens to be a late Minimalist Easter opera written by the festival’s curator and a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music.
But what we do have for this Easter Sunday — and for Passover as well, “The Other Mary” being an ecumenical opera — is a new recording. The L.A. Phil commissioned and premiered “The Other Mary” two years ago, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting. Last year, Dudamel and the orchestra performed a revised version of the score at Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is what Deutsche Grammophon has documented. It is magnificent.
The stimulus for “The Other Mary” is Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” the most transcendent musical portrayal of Christ’s last days. Adams and his librettist, Peter Sellars, expand the story by listening to the women — Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha — in the story and by looking at contemporary parallels. Biblical texts are interlaced with poetry by June Jordon, Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos, Rubén Dario and Primo Levi, and the writings of the radical Catholic social activist Dorothy Day.
What makes “The Other Mary” extraordinary is that while coming out of the Minimalist school, the opera has a vast perspective in its efforts to reveal the universality of suffering. A latter-day suicidal Other Mary could easily be found in halfway house.
Moreover, when you think big, the world begins to feel newly connected. Is it just a coincidence that Peter Brook’s production of “The Suit,” currently at UCLA, turns to Bach’s “St. Matthew” as a last hope in a story of South African apartheid oppression? Is it coincidence that at a time when a new biopic reminds us of Cèsar Chàvez, “The Other Mary” includes Day’s reports on her prayer rituals as the Mexican American labor leader faces down the armed police at his farmworkers’ protest?
Then there is the expansiveness of Adams’ music, the most sophisticated, majestic and moving of his career, which now has the benefit of being the first L.A. Phil recording with Dudamel made available as a high-definition download. The CD sounds very good, but HD brings a whole new level of clarity and sonic pigmentation.
Thanks to that detail, this new recording becomes a revelation of Revelation. Adams has spent much of his career railing against the compositional schools of complexity, but here he embraces the kitchen sink. Layer upon layer of rhythmic syncopations are superimposed in ways that might have pleased the European avant-garde half a century ago. The flickering instrumentation, heavy harmonies and restless, hyper-expressive vocal lines for terrific soloists, counter-tenors and the Los Angeles Master Chorale express deep poetical meaning without compromise.
“Tell me: How is this night,” Jesus sings in a wrenchingly beautiful Passover Seder tenor aria, “different from all other nights?”
And what is left is for me to tell is how the one format of “The Other Mary” is different from all others.
You are safe with the handsomely packaged CD. Downloads on iTunes or, worse, Amazon, are compromised sonically. But if you want to delve into that revelatory new world of HD digital downloads, be prepared for considerable assembly. The 37 tracks on one site, HDtracks, arrive out of order, some clearly labeled but some not. That too is the modern world.