The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco – review

Mark Adamo’s new work is more impressive for its scholarship than for its musical qualities

Come for the exegesis, stay for the opera. Mark Adamo’s new work scours the Canonical and Gnostic gospels and other sources of New Testament scholarship for a speculative love story that challenges the unsavoury reputation of Mary Magdalene, but comes up short as a vital contribution to contemporary music theatre. Mary weds Jesus (here, Yeshua) and, from that vantage point, she becomes an agent as much as observer of cataclysmic events. This prolix piece scarcely rivals John Adams’ dazzling 2012 oratorio on roughly the same subject.

The depth of Adamo’s research during the opera’s six-year gestation is sobering in its detail. But operas don’t succeed because of scholarship; every bit of the research seems to infiltrate the composer’s arch libretto, which abounds in quotations from scripture, footnotes (116, to be precise); high-flown diction, contemporary news bulletins, political commentary and the occasional rhyme. Characters and chorus often sing in non sequitur, sometimes in the third person, an affectation that wears poorly.

Director Kevin Newbury blurs present and past times and fails to individualise many of the 30 personages in the libretto; we’re often left with the feeling that the cast members are not singing for each other, but for posterity. What do we make of the interpolated telecasts of the rather perfunctory crucifixion? And surely there’s a less banal way to depict the Resurrection of the Holy Spirit than via a trap door.

David Korans has fashioned a crowded unit set of an archeological dig in the Holy Land decked with stairways and tunnels. At times, it barely accommodates the hoard of bodies that fills it. Adamo’s familiar tonal effusions serve him only occasionally here. Words are set with uncommon dexterity, but the voluptuous harmonies generate little tension. A soaring prenuptial duet promises much but there’s a Sunday School propriety in the Mary-Yeshua exchanges.

Nathan Gunn is a vocally frayed, marzipan Yeshua without much righteous fervour. Debuting mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s Mary affirms her superb lyric gifts, but low notes are sketchy. William Burden’s strong tenor delivers apostle Peter’s spiritual crises with uncommon power, and soprano Maria Kanyova is a cool, proficient Miriam (mother of Yeshua). Conductor Michael Christie evinces notable command over the 78-member orchestra, sometimes overwhelming his singers.

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