Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Other Gospel of The Other Mary

Good operas are hard to write and are accordingly rare, while great operas are a species of miracle. On Wednesday night, the San Francisco Opera presented a commissioned world premiere called The Gospel of Mary Magdalene by the composer Mark Adamo. Unfortunately, the new opera failed to enter those hallowed ranks, and the main problem was the music. It was insistently dull and lacking dynamic contrasts, droning on at the same slow, conversational level for close to three hours with a few, blessed exceptions (particularly the beginning of Act Two where the chorus and principals finally have some interesting music together).

The libretto was written by the composer, and it's an attempt at a feminist reworking of the Gospel tale with lots of rhyming couplets that traffic in banal pop psychology like "Move on." Adamo also got so worked up by his years of research into the Gnostic Gospels that he forgot to write a drama and instead gives us a theological argument. This would have been fine if he'd gone all the way with the conceit, as he does at one moment when the chorus sings a literary citation, "The Gospel of Saint Thomas," followed later by "(ibid)." (According to San Francisco Chorus director Ian Robertson after the show, there is a hard stop after the last "d.") Instead, the libretto leans toward a square, conventional narration of scenes from the life of the young adult Jesus from Mary Magdalene's point of view.

Saddest of all, there was a lot of obvious talent, sincerity, and musicality on display from everyone, including the orchestra under Michael Christie and the entire cast, from the principals on down to the smallest roles. In the latter category, praised be the Adler fellows making their SF Opera debuts with a special shoutout to A.J. Glueckert. Also amusing and bright voiced were Daniel Curran and Brian Leerhuber as "Policemen, agents of Rome," so much so that I started looking forward to the bad guys arriving onto the scene. The same was true of the male chauvinist closet case, Peter, who was sung with conviction and perfect diction by William Burden. Maria Kanyova (last seen here as Pat Nixon) as Miriam, Mother of Yeshua, had a screechy role and she did as best as she could, while Sasha Cooke in the title role was a great, beautiful diva in search of one good aria. The only bad news among the performers was Nathan Gunn as J.C. the Bastard Street Preacher. Gunn sounded as if he's having some serious vocal problems, a distressing prospect for a locally beloved singer.

Partly to cleanse my palate and partly because of a "Get Thee in Front of Me, Satan" mood, I returned to the Opera House the next evening for a well-reviewed production of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman. I only stayed for the first two acts out of five on account of exhaustion, but will be returning for one of the next two performances featuring OperaVision in the balcony because the show is so good. Matthew Polenzani is in his tenor prime right now and this is a major performance. Hye Jung Lee (last seen as Madame Mao) sang the mechanical doll Olympia so brilliantly that I can't imagine it sounding better. Two character tenors, Thomas Glenn and Steven Cole, are luxury casting and they make the most of the opportunity. Can't want to go back.


Sibyl said...

Well, I think you just saved me a trip from Santa Cruz in July, for which I am not-ironically grateful.

Cole has his greatest moments in the Antonia act, and he was completely, completely wonderful. You are not kidding about luxury casting, because he brought about 37 different kinds of marvelous to Franz.

I had not seen Hoffman live since 1968, and it was not just the first opera I ever saw in a house, but also the one that made me a fan for life. I had no idea how important that made it to me personally until I was sitting in the house last night, really, truly anxious that you and my friend both like it. I have outgrown my earliest opera loves (no more Faust EVER), except, apparently, Hoffman.

I've been following your blog since I wandered in when you were a super in Norma: it was a delight finally to meet you!

Civic Center said...

Dear Sibyl: Thanks for the lovely comment, and I'm so happy you had a Proustian madeleine kind of experience at "Hoffman" last night. Will definitely return for the Antonia act.

In the early 1990s I was a supernumerary in a production of Britten's "Midsummer Night's Dream" in the last act, where Cole was playing Thisbe and I still laugh when thinking about his performance.

Hattie said...

I really value your insights on opera here. But I feel stuck in the provinces, too. Would love to hear a performance of Hoffman.

Anthony Alfidi said...

SF Opera's "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" was pretty bad. Slow story, bad music, and weak singing sunk the whole show. It needs campy elements and hot chicks a la "Salome."

Civic Center said...

Dear Anthony: Your take on the production was very funny.