The bits of conversation I overheard during intermission and in the aisles after the world première of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene at San Francisco Opera were assorted variations of “so, what did you think?” World premières are, indeed, auspicious occasions that privilege first-nighters to experience the work before anyone else has molded or influenced their thoughts about it. But on Wednesday night an atmosphere of timidity seemed to permeate the orchestra stalls of the War Memorial Opera House and few seemed willing to volunteer his or her own opinion without checking with their neighbor first. I had the distinct impression that priests or nuns in the audience, if dressed in their professional attire, would have been besieged by crowds of opera-goers anxious to find out their opinions.

Sasha Cooke (Mary Magdalene) © Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
Sasha Cooke (Mary Magdalene)
© Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

At the conclusion of this three-hour epic, I suspect few would claim The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Adamo’s third opera, an indisputable triumph – but neither was it a failure. In fact, I found the work to be thoughtful, earnest, and, at times, deeply affecting. For me, problems arose when attempting to reconcile the ambition and scope of the libretto (also by Adamo) with the score; Adamo’s canvas was simply too vast and imposing for his composed lyric content to fill. Spending more than six years researching the known first- and second-century texts dealing with Jesus and his disciples, Adamo created an original narrative of these men and women before the advent of Christianity. The heavily footnoted libretto quotes liberally from Gospels outside the orthodox canon and synthesizes relentless philological inquiry with a distinctly human imagining of these individuals and their relationships.

For all the specificity and, at times, wordiness of the libretto, the music of this opera, conducted by Michael Christie, was altogether more ponderous and vague. From beginning to end, languid melodies and shimmery colors undulated with an unspecific point of origin or arrival. Besides the Act II showpiece for the title heroine, “This is how I lose you”, there was little relief from the sameness of texture and utterance, which ultimately had a fatiguing effect. Adamo’s purported use of leitmotif-like coherence in storytelling and characterization was not at all clear at first hearing due to the subtlety of his melodic ideas. Further, the libretto’s verse structure obscured the gossamer musical threads with textual rhyming patterns drawing attention to the wit and rhythmic delivery of the performers.

Played on a single-unit set by David Korins depicting an archaeological dig in the Holy Land, Adamo and director Kevin Newbury began with a group of “Seekers” (essentially, modern-day Christians) at the excavation site, lamenting the sexism of the New Testament. Mary Magdalene then emerges from out of the ruins and the action is immediately transported to the early first century so the Seekers and audience might observe a story that Christianity long ago attempted to obliterate. Magdalene is central to this narrative. Confident and wholly unafraid to speak her mind, Mary finds wisdom through her own search for spiritual and sensual fulfilment and preaches as an equal partner to Yeshua (Jesus’ name in Aramaic). Making her San Francisco Opera debut in this complex title role was mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Cooke’s ethereal voice and dignified bearing were perfectly suited to Adamo’s music and she brought Mary to life. Radiant in Constance Hoffman’s beautiful period costumes, Cooke’s portrayal surpassed impression; she demonstrated an indelible quality often claimed but rarely seen in a role creator. As Peter, the disciple whose ministry eclipsed Mary’s, tenor William Burden gave a riveting performance. Opposed to Mary’s gender and individual-focused spirituality, Peter’s revolutionary zeal was, in Burden’s hands, balanced by vulnerability and the tortured doubt of a believer who needs assurance. His brilliant tenor enlivened the opera’s repose on several occasions, as in the crucifixion scene when his fear and inner turmoil burst forth in his famous triple denial of Yeshua.

The character of Yeshua made arguably the weakest overall impression in the opera. Looking the part and singing well enough, I kept waiting for baritone Nathan Gunn’s Yeshua to be activated. Gunn traced the rabbi’s path from the provinces to Jerusalem with little indication of what inspired others to follow him. Cooke, Burden, and soprano Maria Kanyova as Miriam, Yeshua’s guilt-ridden mother, repeatedly took up the dramatic slack.

It is unlikely that this opera will inspire Biblical apologists to churn out responses in the way that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code once did, but The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a vital reappraisal of the heroine’s story and deserves hearings beyond its San Francisco run. By emphasizing the humanity of its characters – disregarding Christian dogma and supernatural dissonances (virgin birth, miracles, resurrection) – Adamo has located the story’s more universal aspects and created a compelling, dramatic journey.