Mary Magdalene gets a bad rap. Jesus' constant companion is often remembered as a repentant prostitute, but there's no real biblical basis for that tradition. In fact, aside from confusion with other women in the New Testament, there's no reason to believe that she was any more a sinner than any other of Jesus' disciples, other than a traditional discomfort with and suspicion of women in general. This depiction was further complicated by the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of ancient manuscripts unearthed in Egypt in 1945. Found in a large urn, these leather-bound collections of papyrus documents contained several alternate gospels that depicted Mary as a prominent disciple in her own right, not just some hanger-on. And now composer-librettist Mark Adamo, author of the popular contemporary opera Little Women, has taken it onto himself to set the record straight in song.
A world premiere commissioned and produced by the San Francisco Opera, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene draws heavily on these variant texts, to the point of having a 48-member chorus of what look like archeology students standing around singing textual citations for key scenes and quotations. David Korins' set for the SF Opera premiere makes this connection to the unearthed text explicit from the start, depicting an archeological dig of ancient stone walls covered with scaffolding. According to the program, the seeming archeology students are actually modern seekers grappling with their religion's attitude toward women, sex and the human body. ("So poisonous, this story!" they lament.) They thirst to know more about Mary Magdalene ("who was she, the Maaaagdalene woman?"), and she helpfully emerges from a cave and starts reenacting her life with Jesus, here called by his Hebrew name Yeshua.
But the story shown here is not one that many will recognize, because Adamo draws as much from imagination and speculation as from the Gnostic gospels. It opens with Mary summoning her lover, who appears to be Yeshua, and they canoodle until they're caught in the act by... his wife! Wait, what is this? Interestingly, Adamo's version conflates Mary with the adulterous woman whom Jesus saved from being stoned to death with his famous zinger, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." She doesn't have much patience with his gentle scolding afterward, but she's grateful for him saving her life, so she agrees to come hear his preaching.
There's a scene of competing preachers spouting seeming nonsense, inevitably reminiscent of Monty Python's Life of Brian, and Nathan Gunn's Yeshua doesn't particularly stand out from the pack aside from his rich baritone and the fact that everyone seems to be politely paying attention to him. In fact, Mary soon challenges him on a message that seems to be the same old fire-and-brimstone thing she's heard a thousand times before. Yeshua is charmed by her active and uncompromising mind, and she sees something special in him that she wants to explore. This is despite the fact that his own mother warns Mary off in no uncertain terms, saying that he'll only hurt her and destroy her. "Run, run like the wind!" sings Miriam (better known as the Virgin Mary), feelingly portrayed by soprano Maria Kanyova, who played Pat Nixon in SF Opera's Nixon in China last year.
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, in her SF Opera debut, nicely conveys the keen intelligence, pride and self-assurance of this version of Mary Magdalene, and her voice is beautiful. Once she joins the apostles, Mary proves quite contrary, questioning and challenging her teacher at every turn, and Yeshua loves it. Peter is not so sanguine, distrusting Mary on principle because she's a woman and warning Yeshua that she'll lead him to ruin. (As opposed to Peter, who wants to spur him to active revolution.)
Peter is the only other apostle who's named as a distinct personality, though there's a small gaggle of nameless followers always hanging around Yeshua. There's no Judas in this version of the story, as Peter fills the role of the passionate dissenter and trouble maker quite well on his own. The only other real speaking part among the apostles is a cameo by Levi, more familiarly known as Matthew, who is sung, oddly enough, by one of the archeologists in blue jeans. Levi's, perhaps? Tenor William Burden is a marvelously compelling Peter, amusing in his snarky arrogance but honestly touching in his desperate conviction that Mary's presence spells doom for them all.
But in the wake of the pop theology of The Da Vinci Code, indicating that Jesus and Mary were secretly married with children, Mary's role as a great religious thinker in her own right isn't what people want to know. So were they doing it or what? Oh yeah, in this version they were totally doing it. What's most surprising about this opera is how quickly it turns into an oddly conventional love story. Mary and Yeshua are so swept up in each other that it's almost as if they forget for a while that they really have a bigger cause to think about. Yeshua is portrayed as all too human, with some deep spiritual insights but all too fallible, often wrong, and still more often a jerk, and he learns as much from Mary as she does from him. Adamo sidesteps any talk of his divinity, offering a far more humble back story that suggests that Yeshua too has some issues about women. His mother is particularly anguished about how poorly he turned out, calling him "my wounded, wounding son."
"It's kind of a strange story," an older guy sitting behind me said to his friend at intermission. "Not the Mary Magdalene I remember." And yeah, that's kind of the point, and from beginning to end Adamo keeps driving it home.
He laces the libretto with familiar modern turns of phrase, and he makes frequent use of familiar biblical quotations used everywhere but in their familiar context. Both Mary and Miriam sing about taking this cup away from them, and pretty much everybody asks why everybody has forsaken everybody else. There's a lot of repetition in the libretto, much of it effective, but after three hours it's natural to wonder if there couldn't be a little less of it.
Adamo's score is pleasant and comfortably accessible, full of romantic swelling strings played beautifully by the 65-piece orchestra conducted by Michael Christie. But it's also often soporific, making it all too easy to zone out or doze off during the many stately laments, long deliberations and soothing songs of comfort. Director Kevin Newbury's staging is effectively atmospheric, abetted by Christopher Maravich's lighting bathing the stage in deep colors or dawn's early light, but it's seldom dynamic, as opera necessarily involves a lot of standing around singing. Things perk up considerably in sections where Adamo doesn't take things too seriously: a Pharisee (bass James Creswell) sardonically casting aspersions about Yeshua's origins; a "Jesus, doesn't she ever shut up?" scene with the disciples; the apostles' drunken carousing before a wedding; two sarcastic Roman soldiers (Daniel Curran and Brian Leerhuber) taunting Yeshua with the death of his mentor, John the Baptist. But whenever there's someone singing at length about her or his deep spiritual issues, which is often, there's a lot of tedium mixed in with the Te Deum.
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene runs through July 7, 2013 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit sfopera.com.
All photos by J. Henry Fair/San Francisco Opera.