Adamo’s “Gospel”: Half a Fine New Opera Better Than None

United StatesUnited States Mark Adamo, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (World Premiere): Soloists, orchestra and chorus of San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 19.6.2013 (HS)

Mary Magdalene: Sasha Cooke
Miriam: Maria Kanyova
Peter: William Burden
Yeshua: Nathan Gunn
Tamar, Seeker, Girl, Newscaster: Marina Harris
Simon, Follower, Onlooker, Newscaster: Hadleigh Adams
Pharisee, Newscaster: James Creswell
Policeman: Daniel Curran
Policeman: Brian Leerhuber
Other seekers, newscasters, preachers, etc.: Stacey Tappan, Erin Johnson, A.J. Glueckert, Marco Stefani, Joseph Barron, Philippe Sly

Conductor: Michael Christie
Director: Kevin Newbury
Set Designer: David Korins
Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman
Lighting Designer: Christopher Maravich
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson

MW - HS - sfo mary magdalene (PHOTO) (1)
MW – HS – sfo mary magdalene (PHOTO) (1)

If Mark Adamo had written the first half of The Gospel of Mary Madgalene to deliver the same fervor, attention to shape and pace and sheer beauty as the second and final act, the world premiere of his much-anticipated new opera might have made a better impact. As it stands, the audience must sit through a tedious hour-and-a-half of stop-and-start music that shifts uncomfortably between bland and colorful, dissonant and sweetly harmonic. The music never captures the clearly stated intentions of developing the characters and showing them as human beings struggling toward a goal even they can’t quite define.

In a classic case of “things get better as they go along,” the payoffs in the second act are many. Musical themes and lines in Adamo’s own libretto—carefully laid out in the first act— finally develop into something. At the end, a scene with Mary in the tomb with a risen Jesus (here called by his Hebrew name Yeshua) enfolds their final parting with music of exquisite delicacy.

Don’t blame the problems of the first act on the singers or players, or conductor Michael Christie, who all invest the music with everything they’ve got. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Mary and baritone Nathan Gunn as Yeshua both roll out gorgeous vocal qualities, focused sound and diction clear enough to make the projected titles almost superfluous. Cooke paints a complex portrait of Mary Magdalene as a fully realized woman who can use her intellect as well as her undeniable physical attraction to find her way among a cadre of strong-willed men. She is not shy about using Yeshua’s own words (which she overhears in a conversation with Peter) against him in a memorable confrontation in Act II. Gunn, who lacks nothing in the physical attraction department himself, keeps it under the robes but manages to imply that his charisma is as important to his success as his words are. We can sense a noble stage presence even in prosaic situations.

Meanwhile, Christie does his best to harness Adamo’s musical argument. He does so splendidly in the second act, but the score never gives him a chance to build any kind of momentum in the first. Even more vexing, though the libretto seeks to portray Mary, Yeshua and his followers as flesh-and-blood human beings, even injecting fleeting moments of humor, the pace plods so heavily that it comes off as earnest and detached.

Any telling of the Gospels’ story that goes beyond the basic canon of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is certain to ruffle feathers. Many reject other gospels that never made it into the New Testament but tell the Jesus story from other points of view, often with startling differences in detail and interpretation. A papyrus known as the Gospel of Mary, discovered in 1896, may or may not have been written by Mary Magdalene (or her followers), but she appears often in the gnostic gospels, discovered in Egypt in 1946, and without the implications of prostitution or other impropriety that became associated with her over time.

Adamo draws from all these sources, freely mixing details, incidents and quotable lines into a story of his own fabrication. In his program note, he writes, “I tried not to just understand this history, but to forge from it real conflict among vital characters, in speech that honored both its ancient sources and modern listeners.” And so we have Yeshua and Mary joshingly referring to each other in private as “Magdalene” and “Nazarene,” and contentious political arguments among the disciples.

Adamo places the action at an archeological site. Several young “seekers” discuss how to reconcile powerful Christian ideals with what they see as less savory aspects of the organized religion. Mary Magadelene appears and leads them into her telling of the Jesus story. To introduce her, we see Yeshua rescue her from punishment after she is caught in an adulterous affair. With some reluctance, she joins the small, loosely organized sect. She and Yeshua develop a close and many-layered relationship, which culminates at the end of the first act in a glimpse of their wedding. There may be no reference in the Gospels, canonical or gnostic, to such a wedding, but at least it gives the convolutions of the first act a lovely conclusion.

Aside from Cooke and Gunn, singers of the two other major roles bring strong vocal presence to the party. Veteran tenor William Burden negotiates Peter’s declamatory vocal line with impressive clarity and resonance, creating a gruff character who resists Mary at every turn. Soprano Maria Kanyova, last heard here as Pat Nixon in Nixon in China, invests Yeshua’s long-suffering mother, here called Miriam, with a realistic level of skepticism at how her son’s relationship with Mary and his fast-growing following will all play out.

There were no standout voices among the group of “seekers” at the archeological site, but James Creswell lent a resonant and attention-getting bass voice to a Pharisee dismissing the young Yeshua’s credentials as a rabbi. The San Francisco Opera chorus, arrayed atop the archeological site and given music that meandered much too aimlessly, still created beautiful harmonies at critical moments.

Adamo not only weaves elements from various sources together into a thought-provoking libretto, he also carefully assembles musical motifs (a shifting minor-second musical gesture permeates the music, a subliminal Semitic suggestion). He has characters throw their words—and their musical lines—back at each other in moments of disagreement. The vitality that a coherent series of truly realistic interactions between human beings brings doesn’t start to happen musically until the second act. The first act is too busy piecing together its component parts.

It’s possible to do all that without boring the ears off of an audience. If the first act could create more vibrant moments and build some energy, this could be a much more satisfying opera.

Harvey Steiman