John Adams’ and Peter Sellars’ latest opera is a wonderfully eccentric piece of bible fan-fiction, bringing together disparate female voices of testimony and poetry – Rasio Castellanos, Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, June Jordan and Hildegard von Bingen – alongside the male writers of the Old and New Testament as well as Rubén Darío and Primo Levi. The resulting libretto compellingly collapses the wracked and raised bodies of Lazarus and Jesus – one typologically figuring the other in each act – from the perspective of a more obscure ‘Mary’, simultaneously the sister of Martha of Bethany, the female disciple who perfumes Jesus’ feet, and Mary Magdalen. The opera foregrounds accounts of the suffering of the people alongside the suffering of Jesus – we open in an internment camp of some kind where Mary is contained alongside drug users and the dispossessed, and though we move to Martha’s House of Hospitality for unemployed women, we never leave the physical restriction of the barbed wire fences of the opening. Other staging, on movable blocks made to look like cardboard boxes, is temporary compared to these ever-present authoritarian structures.
The libretto never quite makes good on its promising opening as the more well-known aspects of the biblical narratives take hold – references to Dorothy Day’s 1973 farm protests with César Chávez disappointingly feel like distractions from the crucifixion. Partly this is because Sellars resorts again and again to directly using John’s Gospel to ‘narrate’, drawing us back to the familiar, rather than the stand-out poetry of the opera which comes from Louise Erdrich in Act II, summoning up a powerful Christ “who chops down his own cross / who straddles it / who stares like a cat / whose cheeks are the gouged blue of science” and delightfully evokes the resurrection: “The tiny frogs pull their strange new bodies out of suckholes.”
This is great material for Adams’ powerful full-bodied music in a way that even that most purple of the gospel-writers, John can’t compare to. By comparison, passages like “then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already. Now Bethany was nigh unto Jerusalem about fifteen furlongs off” repeatedly drain the energy from the scenes they establish.
Perhaps because the work is seen from the perspective of our ‘Other Mary’, seeing in Lazarus and Jesus the same physical struggles and miraculous rebirth, the opera plays out as a very male, corpus christi rendering of the Passion. Giant anatomical drawings of the male torso and outstretched limbs are flown in and out at the back throughout – hands held Michelangelo-wise towards the gods.
The stand-out performance of the evening, from the Flex dancer known as Banks (real name James Davis) absolutely embodies that male physicality. His role the programme is ‘Angel Gabriel’, but like Stephanie Berge who dances alongside and around mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon’s Mary Magdalene like a Philip Pullman daemon, Bank’s Gabriel dances Jesus’ strength and pain. His movements – variously popping and locking, slow-motion, moonwalking, martial arts and Ray Harryhausen stuttering – take us through the crucifixion and the long night through to the earthquake of Jesus’ death with more precision than anything else onstage. He can’t help but be the focus, a vibrant cloth in what is – with its considerable ambition and numerous voices – a patchwork opera.