Review: San Francisco Opera’s ‘Mary Magdalene’ takes Broadway turn

SAN FRANCISCO — There have been, in modern times, three Marilyns, a couple of Lulus and Lolitas, and many Moby Dicks with their own operas. Now, suddenly and out of the blue, we have two new operas, or in this case operatic Passion plays, about Mary Magdalene.

Fast on the heels of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s premiere of John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” last year and Peter Sellars’ staging this year, comes Mark Adamo’s “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” commissioned by San Francisco Opera and given its premiere Wednesday night in War Memorial Opera House. Comparisons are unavoidable.

To begin with, Adams and Adamo are two of the three most successful of today’s America opera composers (Philip Glass being the third). While hardly as internationally celebrated as Adams’ 1987 “Nixon in China,” Adamo’s “Little Women” is said to have had the most stagings of any American opera in the past 20 years.

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Coincidentally, Adams and Adamo had the same idea about Mary Magdalene at around the same time, four or five years ago. They took a new look at the New Testament from the point of view of the women. Both composers turned to the Gnostic Gospels for inspiration and took a painstakingly 21st-century perspective. Even the dimensions are the same — a very long 90-minute first act and a 60-minute second act.


But there is no mistaking one “Mary” for the other. What Adams’ doesn’t have is this for an ending:

Mary enters Yeshua’s (Jesus’) tomb, misted with stage fog, as in a horror show. The fog lifts, and Yeshua rises behind her, sparklingly in white.

“Tell them,” he sings in something close to a sentimental Broadway style, what he and Mary did, what they tried to do, what they learned, what they fought. Tell them of their dreams and their mistakes. Tell them of their mothers and of the promises everyone breaks. The tune begins almost exactly as does Adams’ memorable Passover aria that ends the first act of “The Other Mary,” but it ends sounding like something Barbra Streisand might sing. I can’t, the morning after, get it out of my head.

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Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” is the opera for those who were unduly puzzled by the vast scope of Adams’ score and of Sellars’ multi-faceted libretto, which incorporates a variety of contemporary American, Latin American and European poetic voices. Adamo, on the other hand, tells a straightforward story in his own simple, rhymed verse (“She closes the door/She sinks to the floor”) that is as easy to follow as a Broadway musical, which the work sometimes resembles.

Indeed, Adamo may have invented a new genre: a biblical Broadway/opera hybrid. His “Mary Magdalene” is a dumbed-down-but-theatrically-savvy, politically-and-socially-responsible tear-jerker that looks for ravishment around every corner. With hints of Sondheim, Strauss and Bernstein, the tuneful, effusive score now and then finds it.

The opera begins with five later-day archaeologists on a dig in the Holy Land. They’re fed up with the Bible’s attitude toward sex and women. Mary Magdalene appears. She’s in bed with another’s husband. Her ecstasy tells her that God exists. Caught in the act, she is about to be stoned for adultery when an itinerant rabbi appears and saves her. Yeshua is a little flaky, a neurotic and uncertain seeker. They fall in love and marry, and Mary becomes the power behind the man.

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Yeshua is the bastard son of Miriam and possibly a Roman soldier. Miriam is no virgin Mary. If this sounds preposterous, Adamo includes in his printed libretto 116 detailed footnotes, sourcing absolutely everything from the canonic and the Gnostic Gospels (when he makes small changes for dramatic reasons, he explains that, too).

And so “Mary Magdalene” becomes a what-if opera. What if this were The Story? Might the church then have had a different history in its attitudes toward women and gays? Might it not celebrate sexuality and the body differently? Might we not have a different society?

The performance was very good. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s Mary is a modern feminine ideal, opulently sensuous, insistently sensible, deeply feeling and demandingly honest. Baritone Nathan Gunn’s Yeshua offers a telegenic, laid-back Jesus, Buddha-like at his best, a self-absorbed self-help guru at his worst. He was not at all divine, which made his crucifixion seem like the horrendous torture that could befall any political dissident.

In this alternate universe, Yeshua rejects his mother, and soprano Maria Kanyova’s Mary emphasizes just how much women suffered from male superiority. Tenor William Burden gives Peter, who was also rejected by Yeshua in favor of Mary, a profound electricity. The many in the crowd — fishmongers, preachers, police — operate fluidly. Michael Christie conducts with conviction.