The “other” Mary – a new perspective on a biblical theme

John Adams’ Passion oratorio with the Berliner Philharmoniker

The composer: John Adams
(Photo: Vern Evans)

The biblical Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus and her less well-known sister Martha: These are the three protagonists of the Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams, one of the most influential and at the same time most popular American composers of the postwar period, who is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Composer in Residence this season. The text of this two-hour treatment of the sufferings of Christ from the perspective of the “other” Mary is by Peter Sellars. The director constructed a framework of quotations from the Old and New Testaments, and interwove them with other text fragments: with writings by the Afro-American writer June Jordan, the Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, the American writer Louise Erdrich, the Nicaraguan author Rubén Darío, the American socialist and feminist Dorothy Day, the Italian writer, chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi and the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen.

From a women’s prison to Calvary

The oratorio was premiered in Los Angeles in 2012, and took its inspiration from an apocryphal scripture from the second century AD, ostensibly written by Mary Magdalene, who was the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus – however, the authenticity of the text is hotly disputed in the world of theology. Adams approaches this non-denominational and timeless passion of Christ and its relevance to the present day with music of great stylistic diversity. Three countertenors take on the role of the Evangelist, something we are familiar with from the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach. The action of the first scene of Act 1 takes place in a prison in our own time. The next two scenes are dedicated to the protagonists Mary and Lazarus. The scenes which follow look back on the supper at Bethany and the Passover feast as described by the apostle Mark at which the disciples round on Mary. In the second act, police raids and arrests are followed by the execution of Jesus at Calvary, the following night of mourning, the burial of Jesus and the final scene with earthquakes and recognition on the morning of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene is the first to encounter the resurrected Jesus and he, as the Gospel of John writes, recognises her and calls her “Mary”, which is where Adams’ composition ends. The work paints an expansive picture, both musically and lyrically, with a new perspective on the “other” Mary (Magdalene) and the role of women – and indeed all of us – in society today.