Many of John Adams’ scores pursue the big ideas. His subjects have included the U.S. relationship with China, Middle Eastern terrorism, the L.A. earthquake and riots, caring for the dying, the Nativity, the bomb. On Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, he tackled perhaps the biggest of all when the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary.”
Taking on the most monumental narrative in Western civilization, Adams’ part-opera/part-Passion is — in subject, meaning, emotion, relevance, historical resonance and musical ambition — huge. The composer has put everything he knows into this score about the final days of Christ, which means he includes some of the most stunning, probing, questing and, in a couple of places, questionable music of his important career.
There was simply no stopping him. Commissioned to write a 90-minute score, Adams turned in one lasting 135 minutes. He worked on it, he said in a pre-concert talk, pretty much daily for 18 months and yet was still so late finishing it that he had to pull out of a Green Umbrella concert he was supposed to conduct in April. L.A. Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel then pulled out of his Green Umbrella in May, having so little time to master this massive and difficult work. The over-taxed orchestra needed to squeeze in extra rehearsal time; the first one was Sunday night directly after finishing a four-hour performance of “Don Giovanni.”
So what did the orchestra, which is ending an outrageously ambitious season with this premiere, get for all that tsoris and expense? It got a piece that sent maybe a quarter of the audience home Thursday at intermission. And it got a masterpiece that will be part of its legacy. I say will be because “The Other Mary” has not yet reached its final form. Next season director Peter Sellars, who wrote the libretto, stages the work in Disney Hall and then the L.A. Phil takes that version on an international tour. This also affords Adams some months to make changes.
“The Other Mary” begins where no other Gospel has ever thought to begun, with a heroin addict howling in prison. In the cell next to her is our heroine, Mary Magdalene. This is the Gospel told not by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but rather according to the other John and Peter, namely the composer and librettist, who present the Passion from the women’s point of view. It is a sort of companion piece to Adams’ and Sellars’ “El Niño,” which a dozen years ago presented a feminist perspective on Jesus’ birth. But whereas the earlier work was light and revelatory, “The Other Mary” is heavy and revelatory, closer in musical style and content to Adams’ 2005 opera, the Wagnerian “Doctor Atomic.”
In the end, however, the text that Sellars assembled from the Old and New Testaments, and the writings of social activist Dorothy Day and poets Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos, Hildegard of Bingen, Primo Levi and Rubén Dario remains a biblical narrative with occasional added context. Mary and her sister Martha, who cared for Jesus in his last days, are recognizable even when treated as archetypes for modern poverty workers who help homeless and abused women and who also nurse their terminal brother Lazarus. Adams is consumed in his score by suffering, but it is not so much the suffering of Jesus as the suffering that Jesus causes for those who love him, most of all Mary. His gift to them is to give them their own identity.
The work’s major roles are for Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The two women are lower voices, Lazarus a resounding tenor. A trio of blessed countertenors helps supply narrative. There is a major part for the chorus, the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The orchestra is not large, but the percussion section is. Electric bass guitar and the Hungarian cimbalom are unusual additions.
Everything works together. Adams’ use of the orchestra is multi-tiered, the writing having many, many small solos but also producing an ever changing tapestry of effective atmospheric effects — terrifying ones and, when frog sounds come in in the background, endearing ones.
Some of the music, on first exposure, seems inexplicably peculiar. The Last Supper is a Passover scene in which Lazarus asks why this night is different from any other to music lacking any Jewish flavor, but it is so show-stoppingly beautiful that no one could possibly object. Adams then throws in a clarinet klezmer riff when Jesus is being led to Golgotha. I found that moving, for no good reason.
Kelley O’Connor’s Mary is a great performance. This young, L.A.-trained singer has been coming into her own the last couple of years. On Thursday she arrived. Adams gives the mezzo-soprano arias of incredible richness, and O’Connor finds their inner core. Contralto Tamara Mumford’s Martha filled Disney with compassion. Tenor Russell Thomas had a breakthrough as well as a singer dazzling when he is angry and dazzling when capturing the gentle beauty of the Passover aria. Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley were the three glorious countertenors.
The Master Chorale, which will have to memorize its choruses for the staging in March, sounded secure and excited. The L.A. Phil played with surprising accuracy, given that it had less than a week to learn an opera score to which a typical opera company would allot several weeks of rehearsal. Dudamel conducted with palpable enthusiasm, but he had to remain mainly focused on keeping everything together. The real interpretation is no doubt to come.
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $53.25 to $185. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com