Numerous operas by talented, established composers have debuted to indifferent audiences and negative critics. Some disappear, like Verdi's Un giorno di regno (King for One Day), while others get revisited by their composer who eventually figures out how to turn an initial failure into a smashing success- Madama Butterfly and Fidelio being just two examples. I thought of these operas about halfway through the first act of Mark Adamo's "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" while sitting amid rows of empty seats in the War Memorial orchestra section, thinking what a pity it was that more people weren't experiencing what could have been a masterpiece. It's certainly not in its current form, but it could be.
There are at least three scenes that are among the most romantic, well-written set pieces I've seen on the opera stage and with some fine-tuning they may eventually rival the best of Puccini and Strauss. The opera has two arias, maybe three, that could easily become standards for opera, jazz, theater and cabaret singers. Some short-sighted, historically uniformed critics have remarked that these songs resemble "Broadway" musical theater rather than opera, and I'll just let the ridiculous idiocy of such comments stand on their own.
The problem with Mary Magdalene isn't a libretto filled with footnotes- who cares? No one is singing the footnotes. And it isn't the music, which is as good as any I've heard in a contemporary opera, and better than most. No, the problem with Adamo's opera is the composer's own religious faith and personal attachment to the material has made him constrain his own best instincts and hedge when he should have let everything loose and gone for broke.
At its heart The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a fantastically romantic opera about two historical figures whom the composer knows many people could have problems envisioning in romantic settings. So instead of ignoring those folks, which he should, Adamo tries to have it both ways and ends up diluting the power of his own vision by adding in the unnecessary frame of the modern day settlers and keeping certain traditional elements intact- as if going halfway will somehow get him all the way. It doesn't work, but it also doesn't bury the serious beauty of what he's created, which is a love story approaching Tristan-like heights during its best moments. Well- maybe Rosenkavalier-like heights, but still.
This opera should really be stripped down to its essence- the story of Mary and Jesus, framed by the people and events immediately surrounding and impacting their relationship. The implications of Adamo's interpretation are a profound and moving vision. In its current state it comes close to achieving something truly rare, but the abundant cautionary noise surrounding it blunts much of its potential impact. I hope Adamo revises this, and that time will prove the critics who bashed it will eventually feel as mistaken as those who called Nixon in China "a CNN opera."
Sasha Cooke was vocally and dramatically superb in the title role, as was Maria Kanyova as Miryam (the other Mary). Nathan Gunn was interesting as Jesus, vocally adept if never compelling, and I'm still pondering the choices of his dramatic interpretation, which is low-keyed and in some ways this makes more sense than portraying Jesus as a charismatic magneto of a rabbi, but it also makes Mary's and Peter's devotion less understandable. William Burden's Peter was well-sung and well performed, making his jealousy of Mary and devotion to Jesus a lynch pin to the narrative, all the more compelling when he betrays Jesus at the end. Adler Fellow AJ Glueckert made a big impression in a small part as one of the modern day settlers. The orchestra played beautifully under conductor Michael Christie and Constance Hoffman's costumes were perfect.
Anyone remotely interested in contemporary opera should see this. Kudos to San Francisco Opera's David Gockley for bringing it to the stage.
Top photo of Sasha Cooke and Nathan Gunn, provided by San Francisco Opera.