Fans of John Adams’s 2000 Nativity oratorio El Nino might be automatically inter-ested in the minimalist’s latest biblically inspired work, while others may look at the summary — another update of the Jesus narrative that folds in contemporary settings and themes — and think it’s a pass.
That would be a mistake. Packed with some of the most ear-catching and dramatic music of Adams’s career, this two-hour stage piece easily surpasses the recent Adams opera Doctor Atomic, and belongs with Nixon and China and The Death of Klinghoffer as one of Adams’s most impressive large-scale scores.
Things start off in high-drama mode, with Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha in prison, on account of their advocacy work on behalf of the poor. If the first slashing string figures rise with a certain triumphal glory, it’s also the case that they don’t flow easily; the notes have to punch through the air, absorbing asymmetric rests and the isolationist feel of the staccato writing. Like much of this Gospel, the music is about pushing through obstacles and self-doubt.
Meanwhile, the fact that the sisters are in L.A. County Jail, being strip-searched for drugs, will immediately help you understand the liberal-humanist heart that beats in this work. Adams and his librettist Peter Sellars — who folds in writing by Louise Erdrich, Primo Levi and references to Cesar Chavez’s community organizing — are addressing the difficulties faced by those who buck capitalist commandments to do for oneself, above all else.
You probably know the broad strokes of the rest of the story. And though it’s a common dorm-room-debate tactic to note that Jesus would likely take sides with the homeless, in a modern political context, the way that Adams imagines radical Christian moods and behavior feels free of cliché. To that end, Jesus isn’t even represented by a single voice on the stage; the same trio of countertenors who otherwise provide narration take on the task of relating Christ’s words. (The Christ is more than a character — and that disembodied quality is part of why this works as a recording, experienced without any visual accompaniment. The words and music are enough.)
This Gospel isn’t a recitation of religious triumphalism — or liberal dogmatism, for that matter. Instead, it’s a thrilling portrait of morality in progress. There are too many highlights to name — but the rising of Lazarus (“For the Grave Cannot Praise Thee”) is an almost unbearably kinetic bit of post-minimal thrash. The wild chorus that opens Act II, “Who Rips His Flesh Down the Seams,” has a spiraling part for electric bass that should thrill fans of Louis Andriessen. Conductor Gustavo Dudamel leads the L.A. Philharmonic rather heroically through the endlessly searching, dynamic music. The scale of the piece risks everything — all but inviting you to deny it as being too earnest — but if you could write music this exciting and communicative, you’d try to score a Resurrection, too.