Review: ENO - The Gospel According To The Other Mary @ London Coliseum
New opera is alive and well in London. Although a recent, half-baked take on The Trail [which I reviewed for theSprout here] by Phillip Glass was a disappointment, I still stand by the firm belief that new opera is of the utmost importance today.
Here, John Adams, one of America's greatest living composers, has taken his oratorio [like an opera for the concert hall] on the passion and resurrection of Jesus and made the focal point Mary Magdalene. In his operatic pieces, Adams has never shied away from basing them on real life characters and events: Richard Nixon, Doctor Oppenheimer, the 1994 Los Angles earthquake in I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, and more. His The Death of Klinghoffer has sparked outrage for its portrayal of the Palestinian terrorists hijacking the passenger liner, the Achille Lauro. Even his On The Transmigration of Souls, his memorial choral work dedicated to the victims of 9/11, is of the utmost tragic and emotionally-wrought nature.
This passion is modernised thanks to director Peter Sellars. He has also compiled the words for the composition. Starting with the Old and New Testament sources, aspects of the writing of Dorothy Day, Louise Erdich, Primo Levi, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Hildegard of Bingen and Ruben Dario all feature and are all infused together in a seamless form of narrative, with little jarring. Doing the same for Doctor Atomic (the Oppenheimer opera), both attempts work well in using already-existing texts and documents. So, perhaps we don't always need a poet or novelist to pull out a libretto every so often.
The music itself is outstanding. Adams works masterfully in his grand and shimmering harmonies and immaculate orchestration. His dissonance is at times fleeting, but present enough to enrich his musical landscape with the many pallets he chooses to fling at an audience. The Hungarian cimbalom (played by Chris Bradley) featured throughout the evening, adding to the evocative and exotic themes. At times, jazz or brass band or even like Messiaen [read my recent review here] and Charles Ives [a review of mine from 2012], you feel Adams can take anything on. The sheer exhilaration and vitality is confirmed by Sellars, who dubbed his music "caffeinated" and even "odd"!
The real stars of this show are the always-transcendent orchestra and chorus of ENO. There was no time to blink at the very beginning, as the chorus marched on and within seconds blasted the notes with the players. Dance proves a focal point in Adams' operas. The dancer simply billed as Banks (no bio in the programme either) had a hip-hop and beatbox vibe that was hard to resist. His fine physique and movements went seamlessly with the sounds. The thrill of movement was presented in every motion he made.
The singers were also impressive. Our Magdalene was a resounding Patricia Bardon and Martha (her sister) was formidably played by Meredith Arwady. Russell Thomas was Lazarus, risen from the dead and singing with much pain and attempted joy. The trio of countertenors (our sort of Evangelists for the evening) were dubbed the Seraphim. Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley were a neutral but obsessive force on-stage. Accounting the events in almost genderless chant, their depictions triggered the action on stage, as they mingled into the events.
My plus-one found it all a bit too much and was not keen on going back in for the second half. Some of the opera crowd in London come across as rude and snobby, with one guy outside in the interval calling my guest "ignorant", much to my shock and fury. People have a right to not like an event. But for me, it was very much a case of "Oh my goodness, I am loving this!".
Perhaps the feminine perspective was not be as clear as expected, but it does take an old story and modernise it with the recent concerns of the Arab Spring, Israel and Palestine, American protests and poverty, in general.
If you are in London soon and fancy an exciting evening of mesmerising music, then this might just be for you.
Electrifying, affirmed and gutsy.
Article: Review: Britten Sinfonia - Tavener's Kaleidoscopes @ Milton Court (featuring John Adams' Shaker Loops)
Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton
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