commissioned by the Contemporary Opera Studio of English National Opera and the Aldeburgh Foundation
Mary of Egypt is the story of the famous Egyptian prostitute-saint. As she sells herself on the streets of Alexandria, she comes across a group of young men embarking on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and decides to join them. Meanwhile, in a monastery in Palestine, the arrogant holy man Zossima wonders why his good deeds and virtues have not brought him peace. Both Mary and Zossima separately hear a voice telling them to renounce everything and to go into the desert. After forty seven solitary years in the desert, Mary and Zossima encounter each other for the first time and find in one another a sense of spiritual ecstasy.
Without the collaboration of Mother Thekla, 'Mary of Egypt' could never have been written. I wanted to know the Theology of the Desert in all its searing compassion, but I also wanted an almost childlike text not unlike early Coptic ikons. 'Mary of Egypt' stands or falls by the recognition of the shock of its simplicity both in music and text. The music reflects this simplicity in the incredibly tight use of material.
The subject of Mary of Egypt had long haunted me - the story of an early Christian harlot / saint and the meeting with a holy man in the desert. How could one call the whore Mary of Egypt 'good' even though she never took money for her prostitution? How could one question the holy man Zossima at all?
Precisely because Mary's door was wide open, even though her love was misdirected and distorted, and Zossima's door was closing around him with his pride: 'even though he understood all mysteries', he had not found 'the one thing needful' - the supreme mystery, the humilty essential for love.
We see the two figures, ikon-like, in parallel lines: Mary whoring without singing words in Alexandria and Zossima verbose and 'stuck' in his world of so-called holiness, with the help of a small group of singing and acting women and men representing the extensions of Mary and Zossima respectively and 'the Voice' unseen and unembodied.
Zossima is always accompanied by trombone and Mary by flute. The primordial sound of the simantron (an ancient wooden Byzantine instrument struck with a mallet) also accompanies Zossima. Mary is led into the desert after travelling to Jerusalem, not as a pilgrim but with the desire for more men on board ship, until she finds she cannot enter the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and gaze upon the True Cross. This is represented by her cries for 'Help!' Finally she is told by the Mother of God to go into the desert where she lives for forty years - her naked skin blackened and scorched by the ferocious summer heat and the freezing winters. After many years have elapsed, and after a period in a monastery near the desert, Zossima finds what he has been searching for - 'once an abstract sound - now in you takes form most gracious of your kind.....'
Zossima's whole sound world becomes Mary's. In her he sees 'love' and his own limitations. His world, once so dry, now in the dryness of the desert, flowers into what the Desert Fathers might have called 'Uncreated Eros' or a hint of the Edenic state. In controlled ecstasy, they both ask for each other to give the blessing. Then Mary levitates as the angels lift her up. Zossima, terrified and awestruck, cannot leave her - 'if only I may just look on you forever...' - but Mary sternly makes confession of her former life and then tells Zossima to leave her and return in a year to give her what she most desires - 'the Body and Blood of our Christ'. Then in a series of mimed insets, Zossima mimes his grief as he comes looking again for Mary; then in despair he sees her over the other side of the water. How can she cross? She walks over the water, receives communion and tells desolate Zossima to go away and return again the following year while she returns, walking on the water.
A year elapses and Zossima comes again. This time he cannot find her anywhere. Then suddenly he sees her lying dead in the sand with an instruction marked into it - 'bury humble Mary'. Redeemed nature appears and a lion, tame in the presence of the remains of the saint, helps feeble Zossima to bury 'humble Mary' with his 'busy paws'.
'Mary of Egypt' is the intent to creat an ikon in sound about Non-Judgement. We know and yet we do not know, the double ignorance - the pharisee, publican, prodigal son, woman in adultery - judge not, judge not...
The whole piece is loosely based on the ancient Byzntine hymn 'Awed by thy Beauty' sung to the Mother of God. In a sense, Zossima loves again when through Mary he can dimly see the beatuy of God - and who knows how far Mary has gone in her serach for the unknowable and unobtainable in her forty solitary years in the desert? Holy Mary, pray to God for us.
John Tavener (May 1992)