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LONDON (Reuters) - American composer John Adams likes nothing better than to see well-known stories in a new light, and his version of the Passion of Christ is told through the eyes of the women who were with Jesus in his final hours.
The first full staging of Adams's "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" - the other Mary being the Magdalene - had its premiere on Friday at the English National Opera (ENO) in a production by Peter Sellars. Its world premiere was as an oratorio in 2012.
The American director previously worked with Adams on his operas "Nixon in China", "The Death of Klinghoffer", about the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, and "Doctor Atomic", about the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
It is no exaggeration to say this latest work, through the power of music and stagecraft, makes you feel like you are there on the skull-shaped hill of Golgotha, also known as Calvary, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified 2,000 years ago.
Wailing women and muttering men in modern dress grope around the dimly lit stage while Jesus writhes in the agony of his crucifixion. Trumpets play alarm-like notes over a layer of dark strings, building to a tempestuous climax as Jesus rails against the Father he believes has abandoned him.
"Ash to ash, you say, but I know different. I will not stop burning," sings tenor Russell Thomas, who along with three countertenors, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley, alternate in singing the words of Jesus, whose character is played by a dancer.
At the ENO, the stage is defined on either side by chainlink fencing topped by barbed wire, giving the impression of a prison. The action opens with woman drug addict beating her head against the prison bars to represent the pain of childbirth.
The stage also doubles as a refuge for homeless and poor women run by Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha.
Sung and acted to perfection by mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as seductive and self-destructive, to the point of being suicidal because she wants to "sleep like a happy woman sleeps".
She engages in an erotic dance with the Angel Gabriel, played by a "flex dancer" named Banks whose jittery movements, as if caught under strobe light, are a highlight.
Martha, sung by contralto Meredith Arwady, is sturdier and more practical than her sister. She sees life as a school of hard knocks. "It was not the decent poor, the decent sinners, who were in need of Christ's love," she sings.
In addition to a conventional orchestra, the use of cow bells and a cimbalom broaden out Adam's previously distinctly American sound to something more exotic, at times Oriental.
With a riveting score, a thought-provoking libretto and fascinating stage action, Adams and Sellars again have put old wine in new bottles and made the Passion seem like it is happening not yesterday, but before your eyes.
(Michael Roddy is an arts and entertainment editor for Reuters. The views expressed are his own)
Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky