The Gospel according to the other Mary (ENO, 27-11-14)

I went on a whim. If nothing else: Mary: mezzo; Martha: contralto. But I ended up enjoying it a lot even beyond these parameters. It’s not the most riveting score. But it’s never unpleasant. Sometimes (especially in the “supernatural” scenes) it gets engrossingly atmospheric. The music, the libretto and the visuals (choreography included) combine to make it more than the sum of its parts, reason for which I will give you the entire team:

Mary Magdalene: Patricia Bardon
Martha: Meredith Arwady
Lazarus: Russell Thomas
Counter-tenors: Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley
Dancers: Banks and Stephanie Berge
Conductor: Joana Carneiro
Director/librettist: Peter Sellars
Set Designer: George Tsypin
Costume Designer: Gabriel Berry
Lighting Designer: James F. Ingalls
Sound Designer: Mark Grey

The libretto tells of Jesus’ last days and subsequent resurrection, from the point of view of Mary Magdalene and Martha (and their friend Lazarus). It’s not a straight-up “gospel”, it sometimes inserts things that have happened nowadays that more or less mirror the biblical story or just draws parallels, as when we’re told that Martha is running a homeless shelter. It works, unless you’re bothered by breaks in the narrative or switches of angle. I thought it all tied in together very well.

The stage setting is symbolic for a very stylised story. There are a couple of very large cardboard boxes that suggest both poverty and cubicles of eternal rest. The primary stage looks like dunes. The main space is surrounded by a chicken wire fence with open gates, which I took to suggest our worldly existence. I found it very interesting if initially confusing that Mary and Jesus (and possibly God) had doubles (dancers – who were ace) who sometimes took on a life of their own but were generally supportive of their characters. By supportive I mean they behaved like the “liberated” side of the character.

I was so impressed with the choreography I often turned away from the surtitles just so I could focus entirely on that. It’s the kind of show where everything converges to tell the story, so there was a lot to express through body movement (the actual resurrection scene and Jesus’s walking away at the very end were especially great). It gave me a lot of ideas of what can be done with seemingly static libretti if one really has an imagination. It’s by no means a busy staging but extremely effective. Wonderful, really.

It’s in English (with some Spanish and Latin for the chorus) but when the chorus was at it I still had to follow the surtitles. Thankfully the singers projected very well, because the text – as everything else – is important and there is quite a lot of it. It’s also a very intense piece – duh! – so the singers (especially Bardon) had an awful lot of acting to do. Arwady’s Martha is an action woman, she’s always getting things done, furthering the plot. As such she doesn’t need and doesn’t have a double. Mary is presented as very introverted, a female counterpart of Jesus, taking on humanity’s pain in a more private manner (at home, not in the street). By contrast, her double is very gentle and full of life. I think Bardon did really well, it’s a bitch having to do introverted and avoid coming off absent. Lazarus was a figure of hope and Thomas infused him with a lot of vitality (good resurrection skills, Jesus!) – also, lovely tenor voice.

Vocals went hand in hand with the acting, occasionally quite moving. I wasn’t crazy about the choir parts, they seemed sort of shouty-monotonous1 where I think it was meant to be akin to a Greek chorus. Maybe Greek choruses were shouty. Generally speaking, whilst I thought the introversion and the supernatural came off well to very well musically as well as dramatically, the straight-on “daylight” parts were not as successful, rather pedestrian.

Although somewhat of a mixed bag, it’s well worth seeing, especially for the excellent staging and the very committed singers and dancers. The good bits will stay with you. There are three more performances.

Audience and gallery. Contemporary operas seem to attract the “hip” crowd, regardless of age (although I think the median age itself was lower than usual). Luckily (?) it was far from sold out, so I had the chance to upgrade to the center gallery from my side seat, with nobody on each side (not everybody was bold enough to upgrade…). It’s a good thing, because the gallery seats (at least) are made for a breed of tall and skinny folk evolved from the praying mantis. I’m not tall but I’m definitely skinny and still there was not enough seat for my bum no matter how I turned…


  1. Aside from the Spanish part in the trailer, that was one of the best things, musically, in the whole opera. It goes on for quite a while in that mesmerising manner. I even thought I could listen to a two hour extended version of that. 
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About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on November 28, 2014, in contemporary operas, ENO, live performances, mezzos & contraltos and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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