The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, SF Opera

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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‘The Gospel of Mary Magdalene’

Music and libretto by Mark Adamo
Directed by Kevin Newbury
Conducted by Michael Christie
San Francisco Opera (world premiere)
June 19-July 7, 2013

The good news is: Mark Adamo’s music is, if not notable, highly listenable, with distinct echoes of Stephen Sondheim. The cast and staging of his new opera, “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” in its world premiere at San Francisco Opera is fine, with several performances truly exceptional. The plot, though familiar, is engaging and, in the end, like many an opera, it is a love story at heart, operating on a very human rather than supernatural level. It’s not all gloom and doom, in spite of its serious subject and there are touches of humor here and there.

The bad news? Well, it’s going to make a lot of people mad. On opening night there was a loud chorus of boos for composer/librettist Adamo from the row behind me and, I can guess, elsewhere in the house. Adamo’s take on the life story of Jesus, based on extensive study of archeological findings, is at distinct odds with Church dogma. It postulates first a love affair then a marriage between the two main characters and, perhaps worse, puts all that confusion about Immaculate Conception to rest. Furthermore, there is a definite feminist slant, and the two central women are the most interesting of the characters, their music arguably the most beautiful. It takes guts to put this on the stage and, not only Adamo, but San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley are to be admired, not reviled for their artistic daring.

The names have been changed to protect the innocent (or the authors?) Jesus (Nathan Gunn) is Yeshua (Joshua in Hebrew and possibly His real name). His mother (the utterly marvelous Maria Kanyova) is called Miriam (a variant of Mary), and a guilt-ridden nagging Jewish mother she is. Her son, at least at the beginning, can’t get far enough away from her and her disapproval of his activities. Mary Magdalene (Sasha Cooke) retains her name but not much of her reputation. Here she is wise and compassionate, if just a little bit promiscuous at the outset.

The cast of principals is rounded out by William Burden as the apostle Peter, quarrelsome, dead-set against the woman Mary and an incendiary revolutionary to boot. Burden, with his clarion tenor, does a fine job, especially in his anguished re-telling of the Passion. Soprano Cooke is warm and lovely in the demanding title role, never more so than in her post-coital (Yup!) aria “I can say I don’t desire you.” Only Gunn – forgive me – the top gun of this production, at least in fame, was a bit wobbly on opening night.

The story is framed by an archeological dig (impressive set by David Korins), where students and workers in jeans and boots bring a hitherto unknown scroll to light – while singing of their love for and dependence upon the traditional story of Jesus and His disciples. This device allows for some back-and-forth between Biblical times and the present. The chorus remains in modern dress throughout and occasional news bulletins broadcast important events like the apprehension and trial of the man the Jews are hailing as their Messiah. Costumes, both the modern and extensively researched period clothing, are by Constance Hoffman. Ian Robertson’s chorus, the orchestra (under Michael Christie) and a supporting cast of disciples, seekers, policemen, preachers and followers all performed well.

Whether or not “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” will be playing on stages 50 years from now remains to be seen. Meanwhile, it should be heard.

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