Mary of Egypt
1991, 100' Opera
Solo voices: Soprano, Alto, Bass | Chorus: SATB.Children's choir
Orchestration: 4fl | 3tpt.2tbn | 3perc.timp | hp | str (188.8.131.52.1)
The story of St Mary of Egypt had ‘long haunted’ John Tavener. The ostensibly straightforward morals of its two protagonists, Mary — or Maria Aegyptica — and St Zosimas (or Zossima) of Palestine, concealed a greater complexity that has prompted the composer to describe its essential theme as that of ‘non-judgement.’ Mary, a prostitute in Alexandria from the age of 12, offered her body not for money but to sate an insatiable lust, resorting for a living to the profits of begging and spinning flax. After 17 years she travelled to Jerusalem with a group of pilgrims, hoping to find more custom on the journey but, once arrived, was instead stricken with remorse upon being denied entry to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by an unseen force. Recognising her impurity as the cause of her denial and a boundless love as the cause of her impurity, she prayed for forgiveness to an icon of the Virgin Mary, promising to give up the world and become an ascetic. Attempting once again to enter, she passed freely into the church, where she venerated the relic of the True Cross before returning outside to give thanks to the icon. Here she heard a voice telling her that if she should cross the river Jordan, she would find true peace. At the monastery of St John the Baptist on the banks of the river, she received absolution and Holy Communion, waking the next morning to cross into the desert, where she lived as a penitent and hermit until her death.
Mary’s encounter with the monk Zosimas came a year from the end of her life, when Zosimas was resident in a monastery near the banks of the Jordan. He was an exceptionally pious man but arrogant in his expectation that his piety would bring him peace. Venturing into the desert to fast and pray during Lent, he crossed the path of the now-naked Mary — her white hair trailing and her skin by this time blackened by dirt and exposure — and barely recognised her as human. After recounting to him the story of her life, she asked that he bring her Holy Communion on the banks of the river on Holy Thursday of the following year. This he did, and she told him to again meet her in the same place at Lent. When Zosimas had travelled the 20 days from his monastery to the meeting place, he found Mary’s body there. An inscription in the sand by her head told that she had died the night they had last met, her body having been miraculously preserved so that he could, as the message implored, ‘bury humble Mary.’ A lion, rendered tame in the presence of the holy man, assisted Zosimas in doing so. Mary of Egypt is loosely based on an ancient Byzantine hymn addressed to the Mother of God, ‘Awed by thy Beauty’, a reference to Zosimas’ renewed love of God when glimpsing His beauty through Mary. Both Tavener and Mother Thekla, his frequent collaborator and librettist, were determined that their Mary of Egypt should express itself by the plainest means possible, free from operatic convention and with something of the asceticism portrayed. Tavener allowed the work to soak up the influences of Japanese Noh theatre and Indian classical dance, resulting in a highly simplified, stylised treatment of sexuality and other themes that might otherwise tend toward sensation, and tight use of musical material. Through successive versions of the libretto the pair came to call it a ‘moving icon’rather than an opera.