The Passion of Mary Magdalene
When general director of the San Francisco Opera David Gockley expressed surprise recently at the apparent lack of controversy surrounding the world premiere of his third commission from composer Mark Adamo, it sounded a little disingenuous. In a city that celebrates Easter with a hunky Jesus competition and is internationally renowned for a blase attitude about most alternative thinking, the idea of an operatic revision of the New Testament told with a feminist slant from fragments found in the Gnostic Gospels frankly didn’t sound all that alarming.
As a matter of fact, the biggest shock about "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," which opened last week at the War Memorial Opera House, is how such a radically provocative concept could result in a work so tame and emotionally uninvolving. It couldn’t all be blamed on the composer, but after receiving such a meticulous, excellently cast and well-mounted production utilizing all the best resources of the SFO, the letdown must primarily be ascribed to the surprising lack of gravitas in the music and the banality of Adamo’s own libretto.
At its best, when the music soars (and it often does), the mood is more highfalutin Broadway than contemporary opera, and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. Couple the catchy tunes to an obvious and simplistic rhyme scheme, and there is more to quibble about. The impact of the story and all the inherent drama is shrunk to a handful of intriguing scenes that are diluted by lengthy and rapturous love duets and weepily agonizing arias.
I’m not sure that Adamo was going for easy listening, and again, there should be no harm in that if the points of the story are served. He does rough up some of the overall prettiness with an occasional crash of dissonance here and some skittering, slithery strings there, but it still doesn’t match the weight of the tale.
What might have been the trend of history had Mary Magdalene been given more voice in telling her version? How influential would her take on the most analyzed story ever told have proved for the later position and treatment of women in the world? Adamo chooses to focus on her passion rather than her gospel, and so makes his biggest narrative mistake. When it is Mary who ends up literally and figuratively wearing the crown of thorns, we can see what he is getting at, but can’t help thinking he has obscured his own intentions.
The rivalry between Mary and Peter (best bud and apostle of Jesus) provides a useful tool for making some points about male chauvinism. The imagined bond between Mary and Miriam (formerly known as the Virgin Mary) is cemented by shared admissions of indiscretions with anonymous men, and gives meaning and motivation to the characters’ actions. It also knocks Jesus off that divinity pedestal and serves Adamo in his quest to bring the story down to earth. He succeeds at that level repeatedly. Sometimes it raises our eyebrows in amusement. More often, though, we sigh at the missed opportunity of receiving some genuine insight.
When Mary and Jesus have their biggest fight, it is over a misconstrued conversation between her fiance and Peter that almost stops the pending wedding and the chastely staged bed scene that follows.
In the first 90 minutes (seems longer) we have met an adulterous rich girl looking for love in all the wrong places saved from stoning by a burly nice-guy rabbi with issues of his own, and who has a guilty and self-deprecating mother attempting to warn other women away. The spiritually starved girl decides to follow him anyway as long her input is respected. Okay. Did we miss something?
Framing the two acts and supplying some needed background exposition is a large chorus of students on an archeological dig. They let us in on the historical significance of the finding of Mary’s Gospel in the desert in 1945. At times they actually declaim some of Adamo’s footnotes. It might have worked in giving scholarly weight to the libretto if the composer could have refrained himself from dwelling so insistently on the prevailing domestic drama of his own text.
The final scene in the tomb (complete with spooky mist) with Mary kneeling by a body double of Jesus might have been more effective had the real Jesus not arisen behind her via stage elevator. This is not the time for a Mel Brooks moment, but it was characteristic of the earnest intentions and missed opportunities of "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene." Jesus tells Mary to go and spread the good news of the work they have done together, and we realize we haven’t got a clue as to what he’s talking about. Was it that stuff about being nice to one another and trying to get along?
The whole opera has tried to provoke interest and debate in a historically shadowy character who was possibly more savior than the man who was finally crucified. At that level it succeeds. As to illuminating or giving more than a shallow insight to her own Gospel, this Mary Magdalene remains a mystery.
The cast and production really couldn’t have been better. With the exception of that cringe-worthy moment in the tomb, director Kevin Newbury, making his SFO debut, moved the large forces about the sturdy unit set designed by David Korins (also new to SFO) with assurance. The mostly static stage picture was enhanced by the attractive lighting of Christopher Maravich and the functional costumes by Constance Hoffman.
The most important advocates for Adamo’s latest opus were appropriately the singers and musicians in the orchestra. Also making his debut with SFO, conductor Michael Christie managed to bring weight and sweep to Adamo’s big melodies, and the punctuations from the percussion added some craved-for astringency.
In the lesser roles (though they were given a fair amount to do), Maria Kanyova was a theatrically and vocally convincing Miriam, and William Burden really took pride of place among the males for his clear and clarion Peter. His moments of agony over the denial of Jesus were particularly effective, and his brief and gruff reconciliation with Mary was genuinely touching.
As the lumpy regular guy Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus), Nathan Gunn looked and acted the part without ever completely inhabiting it. He is worthy of his star status, and he sang, with a few swooping exceptions, with characteristic force. He may have been trying to distance himself a bit from the role (one can hardly blame him), and it showed.
The biggest news and the happiest report is the Mary Magdalene of mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Her debut with the SFO was an expected triumph beautifully achieved. Her acting was poised, and she was visually appealing, even if, like Gunn, her portrayal sometimes seemed a bit uninvolved. If you were only listening, all that mattered was in the voice, and the results were wonderfully believable.