July 05--In Mark Adamo's opera The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which received its world premiere at San Francisco Opera on June 19, we get a brief glimpse of the title character in bed with Jesus, and that is something you don't see every day. One might have anticipated that the city's War Memorial Opera House would be besieged by fundamentalist picketers, but I didn't see any. I guess word had seeped out that even the bedroom scene was timid, no more dramatically involving than anything else that would occur onstage that night.
Adamo arrived at this San Francisco Opera commission with a strong resume. He had scored a stunning success with his first opera, Little Women, which he wrote on commission for the Houston Grand Opera Studio, the group that unveiled it in 1998. It proved so popular that the company's general director, David Gockley, then mounted a main-stage production of it, and the piece went on to crisscross the globe in more than 60 productions. In 2006, Gockley assumed the reins at San Francisco Opera, where a further Adamo commission seemed an obvious move. Opera aficionados anticipated the unveiling of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene with much interest, not just because of Adamo's own achievements but also because, being married to John Corigliano, he is half of the opera world's most eminent composer-couple. For Santa Feans, the event held specific interest thanks to several involved parties who also have important upcoming presences at Santa Fe Opera. The production's director is Kevin Newbury, its set designer is David Korins, and tenor William Burden portrays the role of Peter; all of them will add their talents to Santa Fe Opera's world premiere of Oscar this summer. Also among the leading singers is baritone Nathan Gunn, as Yeshua (which is to say Jesus), who is scheduled to sing the central part in Jennifer Higdon's new opera Cold Mountain during Santa Fe's 2015 season.
For none of these (with the exception of Burden) did Mary Magdalene prove propitious, but one wonders if anyone would be able to make the piece truly stageworthy. At the heart of the problem is the libretto, which Adamo wrote himself. There was no mistaking his passion for the subject. He has read whatever he can put his hands on that deals with the noncanonical Gospel of Mary, a document (usually considered a Gnostic text) that probably dates to the second century and that tells the story of Jesus from the viewpoint of a woman named Mary, who was very possibly Mary Magdalene. Adamo knows the literature; he even includes 116 footnotes in his libretto, replete with the requisite scholarly citations. Nobody is harmed by this, but a libretto's primary responsibility is not to convey reams of information, however precisely. Instead, it needs to present a story clearly and compellingly, and it would be hard to argue that Adamo's libretto succeeded in that regard.
One senses the story he wants to tell: after Jesus rescues Mary Magdalene from punishment because of her sinful behavior, she becomes one of the groupies who surround him; but another of them, Peter, does what he can to exclude her from the apostolic circle because she's not one of the guys. Simple. Clear. Interesting. But Adamo seems unable to resist eking out that central conflict with an immense amount of historical detail, and the dramatic crux gets buried in the onslaught. Then he frames the whole thing with a narrative overlay that involves modern archaeologists who are "digging into" the text, apparently to magnify how historical documents are assessed and championed -- or not. Unfortunately, this outer story is presented chaotically. Who are these people dressed in clothes they bought at Sears in 1989, bumbling about this ugly environment that looks like it has been bombed out? Is this a homeless encampment? That would explain why they have a fire going in a garbage bin. But, maybe not: Why would they be arguing about correct versions of religious texts? Why are we hearing broadcasts of news reports in many languages? Oh, it's about the discovery of ancient scrolls. Who is this lady wandering in dressed as if she just escaped from a Sunday school pageant? Oh, that's Mary Magdalene, who inhabits the space that will later be occupied by archaeologists -- or, as Adamo says noncommittally in the libretto, "perhaps the site of an archaeological dig in Israel." The details confuse the story, and the direction clarifies little.
It is a talkative opera. Yeshua tends to utter portentous statements, repeating words annoyingly, probably for emphasis. He seems practically a New Age guru, sharing thoughts like: "When you're not afraid to lose something,/Then you'll understand/How to hold on to it." For a while the projected supertitles display a sentence Mary Magdalene sings: "The only thing I wish I knew is what it is that I must lose you to find." I sit transfixed, trying to parse these words that the libretto needed to make crystal clear in an instant. Characters talk a lot and do little. Even talking about doing something seems exciting in the context. A rare frisson of dramatic energy arrives in an exchange between Mary Magdalene and Peter, who has acted faithlessly vis-...-vis Yeshua:
Mary: Still -- you're not a traitor.
Peter: Do you think that's true?
Mary: If I cannot: Then I will act as if I do.
And, oh yes: much of the text is cast in rhyming couplets or expansions thereof, which in the end seems more of an impediment than a delight. Sometimes the second half of a thought seems to exist only because it rhymes with the first half, after the Seussian manner, as in this scene sung by Mary Magdalene and Miriam (mother of Yeshua):
And fifty years ago, there lived a rabbi;
And he was named Hillel.
He seemed to know the secret of a godly life.
You'd ask him: he would tell.
The music is attractive, nowhere more so than in a wordless chorus that accompanies Mary Magdalene's washing of Yeshua's feet. The score ranges in style but the fundamental influence seems to be movie music of the 1940s -- Rozsa, Steiner, Herrmann -- or maybe a touch of Richard Rodgers, though filtered through a modernist prism. Conductor Michael Christie oversaw it adeptly, but at first hearing no individual segments leapt out as extractable or particularly memorable. Of the singers, mezzo-soprano-on-the-rise Sasha Cooke turned in an affecting performance as Mary Magdalene with vocal security, and she projected the text with unimpeachable diction (not always to the text's advantage). William Burden brought his intense, burnished tenor to the role of Peter, and his confrontations with Cooke provided nothing but vocal delight. Maria Kanyova rendered the soprano part of Miriam nicely, though the role proved dramatically eviscerated as the evening progressed. Nathan Gunn did not convey the vocal resplendence he often has in the past, and a listener was concerned to hear suggestions of a vocal wobble at times. Perhaps it was merely born of opening-night insecurity, or of overcompensation to project through the rich orchestration, or maybe the part lay higher than he might have wished.
A few weeks ago the name of Ophra Yerushalmi resurfaced -- an expert pianist I heard with pleasure on occasion in New York during the 1990s. She was a regular presence on the city's concert scene, often giving recitals that included music by Franz Liszt. Since then, she has become a part-time Santa Fean and has developed a parallel career as a filmmaker. Her documentary Liszt's Dance With the Devil, released in 2008, was scheduled to screen this week at the Center for Contemporary Arts. The event was postponed due to unexpected circumstances as this article was heading to press. We will let you know when a screening is rescheduled.
Liszt tends to evoke extreme responses from otherwise well-balanced music lovers: they love him or they hate him. His reputation suffered for many years from the overrepetition of the more sensational chapters of his life and from the overexposure of a few of his compositions that are, frankly, not from the top drawer. Whether or not he is on your shortlist of favorites, it is an unassailable fact that Liszt was one of the most fascinating figures in the history of music. Situated at the vortex of the 19th-century musical swirl, he seemed to pack three lives into his time on Earth: first, as the unparalleled piano virtuoso of his day; then, as a searching musical thinker, honing his skill as a composer and promoting forward-looking music by others from his perch at the Weimar Court; and finally, as a senior eminence intent on looking inward, adopting a mystical stance of eccentric religiosity while fulfilling the responsibilities of a much lionized cultural icon.
Yerushalmi clearly loves Liszt. She does not attempt to provide a comprehensive account of his life and works in her hour-long film, producing instead a more personal rumination that allows various pianists, historians, and other informed parties to share some thoughts on matters Lisztian, punctuated by well- chosen performance excerpts. It's surprising how much she was able to pack into so short a span without making the film seem rushed or overloaded. Among the pianists who make appearances are Jeffrey Swann, Mykola Suk, and Oxana Yablonskaya, in addition to Yerushalmi herself, who graciously refuses to hog the spotlight. The American pianist Frederic Chiu offers thoughtful insights on Liszt's transcriptions and plays a riveting excerpt from his piano version of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, demonstrating some of the subtle artistry that was involved when Liszt turned a work for orchestra into one for piano. French pianist Wilhem Latchoumia delivers huge sound and stunning left-hand octaves while demonstrating Liszt's extroverted side and then retreats to near silence for his late, puzzling Nuages gris. Liszt's great-great-granddaughter Nike Wagner discusses Liszt's reputation within her family (Liszt was the father-in-law of Richard Wagner). Poet Robert Pinsky adds a multidisciplinary flavor, and French critic and intellectual Jacques Drillon offers original thoughts about the modernity of Liszt's pianistic style and his attitude that there need be no such thing as the final, definitive form of a composition. For music lovers, Liszt's Dance With the Devil will represent time well spent.
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