Known for his quirks and inventiveness, Peter Sellars transforms ENO into a visually mesmerising view on the gospel, seen from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, in the world staged premiere of The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Stunningly composed by John Adams, in an intriguing aural world full of intensity and passion, we experience the story of Jesus’s last days quite differently to anything expected.
With a text about the New Testament we are brought into the world of Mary Magdalene, intensely sung by Patricia Bardon, and experience the events through her. Shifting between modern time references with drug addiction and female prisoners in despair, and the historical weight of the gospel, the performance cleverly links the events of the past with the world of today. With a strong emphasis on the visual life of the piece, Sellars directs with a sensuous response to the world of the music, and the ENO chorus majestically embody Adams’s charismatic score.
The music is crisp and Adams’s writing exposes the talent of the six soloists, led by Patricia Bardon and greatly supported by Meredith Arwady as her sister, Martha. Jesus never appears but is represented by a mystic trio, Seraphim, sung by countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley, who take turns to enchant Mary and provide us with a choral narration, driving the story forward. A clever decision on Sellars’s and Adams’s part as a faint, distant presence of Jesus proves much more powerful than an actual personification. The resurrection of Lazarus is scenically effective in its simplicity, and as Russell Thomas (Lazarus) sings during the Passover ritual the music soars to new heights and prove one of the most effective moments of the night.
Sellars has spiced the performance with contemporary dancers providing shadows for the characters and a physical response to the music, with the heartbeat of this production being the silent dancer Banks who sporadically lets the music transform him completely, moving him beat by beat through the suffering of Jesus and his followers. He dances with such precision and emotion it quite literally hits you in the chest. Coupled with the brilliant development in score and lighting, his performance makes this into something unique and strangely precious.
As a form it confuses, and though being cleverly staged it’s more like an oratorio in the style of Bach than a production of deepened narrative. It could function in a concert situation probably just as well, however the set and lighting design, a brilliant collaboration between George Tsypin and James F. Ingalls, is breath-taking and makes this production quite the event it is.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary feels a bit like a mystery play – showing us the imagery of the gospel but never reaching deep in the narrative and characterisation. With its two hours and 20 minutes it asks for patience and at times it’s slightly preachy, rushing the narrative of the second act, but overall it’s an impressive and inventive visual experience with an incredible score that digs deep and explores a variation of colours in what is some very powerful composition.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary plays the London Coliseum until 5 December. For tickets and more information, see the ENO website. Photo by ENO/Richard Hubert Smith.