Ravinia gives voice to passion of Adams' 'The Other Mary'

Ravinia saved the best for (nearly) last.

The 2013 festival's penultimate weekend brought the most important artistic event of the summer season: the Midwest premiere of John Adams' oratorio about the final days of Christ, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary."

The outdoor setting lent a certain resonance of its own to the performance on Saturday night, with the chirping cicada chorus blending into Adams' delightful choral and orchestral depiction of newborn frogs emerging from suckholes — in a section about rebirth that makes a starkly dramatic contrast to the violence of the Golgotha and earthquake scenes on either side of it — in Part 2 of Adams' modern Passion play.

It helped immeasurably, of course, that Ravinia was able to import most of the original performers who had taken part in both the world premiere of "The Other Mary" by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale in Los Angeles in May 2012, and again in a staged version by librettist Peter Sellars that accompanied performances of Adams' slightly revised version of the score given there in March.

Ravinia was following through on a commitment to Adams' large-scale works established 10 years ago, when the festival gave the Midwest premiere of Adams' and Sellars' Nativity oratorio, "El Nino," to which "The Other Mary" forms a kind of sequel. Good to see the festival getting behind America's leading classical composer.

Master Chorale director Grant Gershon, who had stepped in for Gustavo Dudamel to conduct one of the March performances at Walt Disney Hall in L.A., was in charge of Saturday's concert, bringing with him his finely trained chorus and all six of the original vocal soloists. They were all marvelous. So, in its way, was the Chicago Philharmonic — the only non-original cast member — which was given five rehearsals to get Adams' brawny, challenging music into its bloodstream. The orchestra did so remarkably well, even if the score isn't as second-nature for the players as it is for their colleagues from the West Coast.

Unlike traditional settings of Jesus' death and resurrection, the Adams-Sellars adaptation focuses not on the Savior's suffering (Christ is never witnessed directly) but, rather, on that of Mary Magdalene, his most fervent female follower. Mary's sister, Martha, and their brother, Lazarus, also figure prominently in this retelling.

Sellars cross-cuts between the biblical narrative, drawn from the Old and New Testaments, and poetry and prose by writers, most of them women, whose observations echo the dilemmas in which Mary and Martha find themselves. The libretto includes texts by the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen, Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, Native American poet and novelist Louise Erdrich and others.

The agonies of the doubt-ridden Mary ("Whom am I praying to?" she cries early on in the piece) and her passive-aggressive sister Martha thus become the agonies of abused but courageous women of all eras who find spiritual grace through reaching out to the poor. Thus the familiar Passion story gains vivid contemporary immediacy. Parts of it make us feel acutely uncomfortable, and that is precisely the effect Adams and Sellars sought.

It would require more than one hearing for the listener to find coherence in this crazy-quilt of texts, and Ravinia did the audience (a disappointingly small crowd, at that) no favors by failing to include a fully annotated text in its program book. (Surtitles were provided on the video screens in the pavilion.)

Also, although Adams made some adjustments to the score between the two series of performances at Disney Hall, Part 1 of the oratorio, which clocks in at about 70 minutes, still could stand several more nips and tucks. Part 2 is decidedly more coherent, besides being richer in musical invention. Saturday's performance ran just over two hours, including intermission.

But what a gripping, wrenching, ultimately moving achievement "The Other Mary" is. Here is some of the most varied and masterful music Adams has composed to date. The score is much harder-edged than that of "El Nino," closer in manner to his 2005 opera, "Doctor Atomic." Sections suffused with spiritual grace are sharply contrasted with explosions of violence in the orchestra; these inspired choral sections are prime Adams and were beautifully rendered by Gershon's choristers, who sang magnificently throughout.

Adams' ever-evolving orchestral tapestry draws its strength from richly textured fields of chordal harmony and his typically quirky pulsations of rhythmic energy. The instrumental palette is enhanced by the exotic colorings of electric bass guitar, suspended gongs and cowbells.

Gershon has been deeply invested in Adams' music for some two decades, and it showed Saturday. He not only held the complicated apparatus together firmly but knew exactly how to shape long lines with such care as to make the listener feel more like a participant than a spectator in this old-and-new spiritual drama.

Words, and conveying the emotions behind those words, really mattered to the solo singers: mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor as Mary, mezzo Tamara Mumford as Martha and tenor Russell Thomas as Lazarus. All three were terrific, inhabiting their music and text with such intense musicality and theatrical impact that the absence of the Sellars staging registered not in the slightest. Countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley made a properly ethereal effect as the trio of narrators.


Twitter @jvonrhein