The Los Angeles Philharmonic is in the midst of the continental European leg of its tour to London, Lucerne, Paris, and New York. Reviews of concerts in London have been consistent in their high praise of the orchestra’s performance and sound in the fairly adventurous repertoire they have taken on the road. On balance, they have generally been keen on Gustavo Dudamel’s interpretations of the 20th and 21st Century works he’s conducted, and while their comments often mirrored my own concerns about his choice in tempi in La mer and Firebird, you get the sense that his interpretations were more like what I heard during the second performance I attended — smoother and less tentative.
Then there is John Adams’s reworking of The Gospel According to the Other Mary. The reviews gave generous kudos to the performers, but have been mixed about the merits of the composition and dramaturgy.
- Local critics, most of whom had experienced its previous incarnation last year, were generally positive about the So Cal performance, with Tim Mangan giving it a thumbs up, Brian at OutWestArts having mostly positive things to say, Mark Swed gushing over it (again), and David Littlejohn calling it a “triumph.” I spoke to others who saw both versions, and they all found the newer one to be a thoroughly enjoyable, even inspiring, work.
- London writers have been less enthusiastic. Ivan Hewitt in The Telegraph says, “One can only salute the care, attention to detail and sincere intentions that went into the oratorio’s making. Unfortunately, as with other pieces from the Adams/Sellars workshop, this one suffers from an excess of good intentions.” In The Independent, Michael Church writes, “If the first act was dismal, the second was a sort of redemption . . .” The summary for Andrew Clark’s review in the Financial Times states, “John Adams’ operatic oratorio is hampered by long-time collaborator Peter Sellars, though his musical imagination still shines through.”
I find it interesting and completely understandable that opinions differ on opposite sides of the pond. I saw the second L.A. performance of The Other Mary, and I happen to agree with the California critics I mention above in that this iteration of The Other Mary is better than last year’s: Peter Sellars’s relatively restrained staging makes the drama more comprehensible; the musical textures are noticeably less thick, so the singers are no longer overwhelmed by the orchestra; and the performances of all involved were uniformly top-notch.
Of course, those critics in England had a purer experience since they didn’t have the benefit/burden of knowing what it was like previously. Their reactions sound a lot like the same mixture of compliments and frustrations showered upon The Other Mary by many folks, myself included, when it premiered last year.
I wonder how much knowing how it used to be makes the newer version look better by comparison, like the 400 lb person who loses 150 pounds: if you knew them back when, they look so much better today and you’re thrilled at what they were able to achieve. If you never knew them before, you think, “Gee, that 250 lb person would look so much better if only they dropped some weight.”
I’ve gone back and forth about how much I like the newer — dare, I say, “final” — version. Notwithstanding the wonderful work by the artists (orchestra, vocal soloists, chorus, dancers, and especially Grant Gershon filling in as a late replacement for an absent Gustavo Dudamel) and the improvements made by Messrs. Adams and Sellars, I’ve realized that the conclusion I formed last year still applies today: “Despite its many charms, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is — in its current form — ultimately a ponderous, disjointed work that falls apart under its own weight.”
Why? For starters, regardless of whatever cuts were made and whatever its actual duration, The Other Mary still feels way . . . too . . . long. There are so many times in Act 1 where I found myself wondering how much longer it would be before intermission.
Of course, the work’s length wouldn’t have mattered so much if it were compelling enough to keep my attention. And this is where the drama, the basic premise of the story itself, remains problematic. Before hand, I thought maybe I just wasn’t “getting it.” Now, the staging employed certainly clarified the action and makes it easy to understand — unfortunately for me, my clear understanding of it just solidified my dislike for the tale Adams and Sellars have crafted. I tried, but I never found myself buying into the “eternal present” universe and the events going on within it.
Lastly, the theatrical elements may have made the experience more enjoyable, but it wasn’t enough. Did the staging make it more entertaining? Yes. Did the staging make it a successful work overall? In the end, not really.
It reminded me of the Dodgers when they acquired enigmatic slugger, Manny Ramirez. Before the acquisition, they were a team that regularly struggled to make the playoffs and were frustrating to watch because they couldn’t get much done. With Manny, they were admittedly a better team, more entertaining to watch, and making it deeper into the playoffs than they had previously. That said, they were even more frustrating in that even with the improvements, they still ended up falling short of the World Series. After a few short years, his impact was negligible and his era was merely a splashy, if ultimately unsuccessful, footnote in Dodger history.
I fear The Gospel According to the Other Mary is destined for a similar fate in LA Phil lore, and I can’t put it any better than Mr. Church did in The Independent: “Somehow I don’t think this misshapen piece will join the roster of Adams classics.”
- Forgive them for they know not what they do: Adams & Sellars over-reach with “The Gospel According to the Other Mary”
- LA Phil tuning up the programs they are taking on tour (part 2 of 3): Dudamel swings for the fences with “La mer” & “Firebird”
- LA Phil tuning up the programs they are taking on tour (part 1 of 3): Packing up the Green Umbrella for a road trip
Los Angeles Philharmonic: March 8, 2013; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Grant Gershon, conductor
Peter Sellars, director
Kelley O’Connor, Mary Magdalene
Tamara Mumford, Martha
Russell Thomas, Lazarus
Daniel Bubeck, countertenor
Brian Cummings, countertenor
Nathan Medley, countertenor
Michael Schumacher, dancer
Anani Dodji Sanouvi, dancer
Troy Ogilvie, dancer
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, music director
Mark Grey, sound design
James F. Ingalls, lighting designer
Dunya Ramicova, costume designer
James Darrah, assistant director
Ben Zamora, associate lighting designer
Helene Siebrits, associate costume designer
Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Photo credit: Keith Sheriff for the Financial Times