Friday, June 21, 2013

San Francisco Opera: Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

June 19, 2013

As an atheist, I have no particular stake in saving the soul of Christianity. The religion has a 2,000-year track record of misogyny based mostly on the beliefs of its founder, Saint Paul, and the early decision of church leaders at the Nicene council to exclude gospels that gave more prominent roles to women. The recent interest in Mary Magdalene, based on an alternate gospel uncovered in Egypt in 1945, seems to come from a desire among exasperated Christians (largely Catholic women) to instill a stronger female element in the life of their Messiah. This certainly explains the success of The Da Vinci Code, in which author Dan Brown posited the idea that Jesus fathered a child by Mary Magdalene, a child who would later become known as The Holy Grail.

Composer Mark Adamo seems to have a definite stake in saving Christianity, declared by the chorus in his opening scene. A group of archaeologists at the 1945 dig lament the sexism of their religion ("So poisonous, this story - it has hurt me all my life"), and are about to burn their bibles when they uncover the gospel of Mary Magdalene. A chorus of passers-by declares that perhaps this is a way out of the church's conundrum. As the chorus reaches a pitch, Mary Magdalene herself appears, establishing an intriguing device - ancient characters interacting with modern archaeologists - that will reappear throughout the opera. Mezzo Sasha Cooke wanders the ruins, describing her search for her lost lover in a bona fide set piece (a recent and welcome departure from the 20th-century tyranny of through-composing).

For Christians and non-Christians alike, the bracing feature of this first act is the involvement of Jesus (here called Yeshua) with a woman, and the grounding of religious icons in a full-blooded humanity. The earthiness is present immediately, as Mary is about to be stoned to death by her former lover's enraged wife. The preacher Yeshua appears to save her with the proverbial "casting the first stone" argument. This rescue creates a bond between the two, and Mary becomes determined to join the preacher's inner circle.

Watching a woman storm the apostolic man-club is a satisfying sight, along with a host of other scenarios: Yeshua's mother, Miriam, describes a bastard son who replaced his real father with God; Peter opposes Mary's inclusion with a weirdly furious jealousy (hinting at the latent homosexuality that has also been attached to Saint Paul); a pair of Roman policemen (Daniel Curran and Brian Leerhuber) bring the comically callous presence of the ruling powers into the argument.

Adamo's musical approach is captivating. The primary device is the use of sustained vocal lines over bursts of percussion and brass, hinting at the subterranean tragedies to come while taking full advantage of his singers: Cooke's radiant mezzo, Nathan Gunn's calming baritone as Yeshua, William Burden's strident tenor as Peter, Maria Kanyova's pyrotechnic, sometimes screeching soprano as the frantic Miriam. He also shows great affection for his choruses, the large passers-by chorus as well as a small chorus of archaeologists, and indulges in striking a capella passages as well as playfully harmonic duets; a series of these is used to bring about the reconciliation between Mary and Peter at her wedding to Yeshua. The culmination arrives in the gorgeous, melodic lament for Mary, "This is how I lose you."

Sadly, that lament is about where the opera loses itself. A libretto based on textual arguments might hold a roomful of theologians, but what about the rest of us? As Yeshua approaches his date with the cross, the barrage of overgeneralized platitudes wears out its welcome - helped not a bit by Adamo's self-proclaimed affection for the repetition of pivotal lines. ("When you're not afraid to lose something, then you'll know how to hold on to it" makes more appearances than a Seinfeld re-run.)

Another problem derives from Adamo's effort to bridge the gap between contemporary speech and biblical speech. At times this results in fetching verse and wordplay ("We realize it rankles those chains around your ankles"), at others it results in oversimplified lines that would be more at home in a Broadway musical. (You could actually see Yeshua rising from the tomb with "The sun'll come out tomorrow...").

In short, where the first act had the invigorating surprise of Magdalene as a full player, the second act is an anticlimactic snuff film, preceded by all manner of dull philosophizing. (Compare this with truly active operas: Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, SFO's recent 911 opera, Heart of a Soldier.)

The single set by David Korins is beautifully versatile, achieving its changes through the lighting design by Christopher Maravich. Michael Christie did a superior job of conducting, holding together all the elements of Adamo's ambitious score, and it was an evening-long pleasure for this drummer to take in the electrifying percussion parts (particularly the xylophone). Mary's final exit is marked by a haunting effect among the strings, bursts of glissando that sound like dying fireflies.

Through July 7 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $22-$340, 415/864-3330,

Images: Sasha Cooke (Mary Magdalene). Act I. William Burden (Peter), Nathan Gunn (Yeshua), Sasha Cooke (Mary Magdalene) and Maria Kanyova (Miriam). Photos by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and the author of the novel Operaville, available on

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