SAN FRANCISCO – (CBS SF) San Francisco Opera is currently staging the world premiere of “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” by composer-librettist Mark Adamo.
Adamo’s take on Mary’s story comes from research into the Gnostic gospels and other writings that argue for Mary’s prominence. Yeshua (Jesus) and Mary are wed in the opera, but more significantly, he tells her that she is the most important of all his followers.
Popular books such as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code have fueled the argument supporting Mary’s significance, a version that would very likely have been quashed by church fathers at the time.
Adamo’s tonal, sometimes dissonant music is packed with dazzle and drama for the most part. There are, however, long spells of philosophizing not well supported musically that call for a good trimming.
Adamo is at his best when writing simply. The lyric duets between Mary and Yeshua and Mary and Peter, and Mary’s solo reflections, are the most memorable moments in the opera. Love is sought and given, and the music is never mawkish.
American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, in her San Francisco debut as Mary, sang with haunting purity in a performance of great dignity and intense feeling. Her initial duet with Nathan Gunn, whose music describes not a fire-eating Yeshua but a magnanimous leader alone, will keep the work in the memory. Gunn’s role is more complex than Mary’s, and he powered through it with authority and grace.
Tenor William Burden sang the role of Peter with bluff, dark tones, impressive especially in his dealings with Mary, whom he distrusts, and in his later renunciation of Yeshua. Peter is so important that at one implausible moment in the opera, Yeshua promises to work on Mary’s female weaknesses, an odd turn after declaring her importance in his life and work.
Miriam, the mother of Yeshua, is sung by soprano Maria Kanyova, and comes off less securely. Her sexual life seems an inappropriate subject for Adamo to dwell on, but when addressing the plight of her son, Kanyova brings ethereal high notes to her portrayal.
Kevin Newbury has his work cut out for him staging in the 30 figures in the libretto, but his direction is highly decipherable, and designer David Korins’ archeological dig and stone terraces serve the work well.
The opera chorus narrates the story potently, and Newbury moves the chorus dramatically in scenes where the Romans confront the Christians and the crucifixion scene, which is brilliantly lit by Christopher Maravich.
Michael Christie conducted with fervor and fine pacing, and if the large orchestra swamped the singers for the first 10 minutes, good balances were achieved for the rest of the performance.
“The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” runs at the San Francisco Opera War Memorial Opera House through July 7. The work is dedicated to General Director David Gockley, who premiered Adamo’s first two operas at Houston Opera and who must hold some kind of world record for opera commissions.
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