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The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
San Francisco Opera
Adamo's Gospel in San Francisco, with Burden, Gunn, Cooke and Kanyova
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2013
The vibrant presence of mezzo Sasha Cooke in the title role wasn't enough to overcome the deficiencies of Mark Adamo's Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which became increasingly apparent throughout the nearly three-hour world premiere on June 19 at San Francisco Opera. An SFO commission, Mary Magdalene follows the title character's relationship with Jesus (here called Yeshua) from their first encounter to the crucifixion and resurrection. The opera begins with Mary, caught in bed with another woman's husband, arrested and about to be stoned. Yeshua intervenes, and she becomes his supporter, his lover, his wife and his "Wisdom," helping to shape his philosophy and willing to defy his closest disciple, Peter.
The score, at times reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein and Lerner and Loewe, works best in several lush arias and duets for the two principal singers; elsewhere, Adamo provides a fitful, unmemorable assembly of orchestral washes, vapid climaxes and New Age effects, with arias — including one for Yeshua's mother, Miriam, describing a terminated pregnancy — that fail to define character or advance the plot. The chief impediment, however, is the composer's own libretto. Constructed from six years of research, quoting liberally from various gospels, and appended by 116 footnotes and a bibliography, it comes across in a ponderous marriage of scripture, rhymed verse and contemporary psycho-idioms; the action, swamped in exposition, proceeds at a turgid pace, often resembling an earnest thesis project more than an integrated drama. The opera is set in an archaeological dig, with a group of modern Christians called Seekers introducing the discovery of the canonical gospels at the outset and the chorus commenting on the developments thereafter; Constance Hoffman's mix of first-century and modern dress was a distraction; the staging by director Kevin Newbury further muddled matters, frequently mixing the two groups. In the end, Newbury — like Adamo — could not transform Mary's story into an opera.
Conductor Michael Christie, in his company debut, strove for cohesion, and the cast and chorus, for the most part, delivered committed performances. Baritone Nathan Gunn was a puzzling, mild-mannered Yeshua, unimposing of voice and hazy of character. William Burden's bright, generous tenor yielded a commanding, articulate Peter. Soprano Maria Kanyova, unhampered by the role's high tessitura, soared as Miriam. Bass James Creswell was a robust Pharisee, and Marina Harris made the most of her brief appearance as an aptly venomous Tamar.
The best news in Mary Magdalene was Cooke's majestic performance. In her company debut, the American mezzo made a brilliant impression, her characterization composed of equal parts poise, radiance and elegant directness. Her honey-colored voice was deployed luxuriantly; Cooke sang with complete conviction, sounding unforced and lustrous throughout a long evening.
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