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Prostitute as truth: What now, then, Peter?

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
06/19/2013 -  & June 22, 25, 28, July 2, 5, 7*, 2013
Mark Adamo: The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
Sasha Cooke (Mary Magdalene), Maria Konyova (Miriam), Nathan Gunn (Yeshua), William Burden (Peter), Marina Harris (Tamar, Seeker, Girl, Newscaster), Stacey Tappan (Seeker, Girl), Erin Johnson (Seeker, Girl), Daniel Curran (Policeman), A. J. Glueckert (Follower, Seeker, Preacher, Newscaster), Marco Stefani (Follower, Seeker, Preacher, Newscaster), Brian Leerhuber (Policeman), Hadleigh Adams (Follower, Seeker, Preacher, Newscaster), Joseph Barron (Follower, Seeker, Fishmonger), James Creswell (Pharisee, Newscaster), Philippe Sly (Newscaster)
San Francisco Opera Chorus, Ian Robertson (chorus master), San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Michael Christie (conductor)
Kevin Newbury (director), David Korins (set designer), Constance Hoffman (costume designer), Christopher Maravich (lighting designer)

N. Gunn & S. Cooke (© Cory Weaver)

The arrival of a new opera prepared in the grand tradition naturally generates keen anticipatory speculation. One can almost hear the knives being sharpened. It is perplexing, but predictable, that – despite the widely recognized gifts of Mr. Adamo (once again composing to his own libretto) and his Herculean effort to realize his vision, his six-year investment of research and assiduous attention to detail – this outstanding commission can be dismissed with barbed comments by some critics.

The audience approved it with standing ovations.

In Mark Adamo's entrancing opus, orthodox conventions are liberalized and sometimes even absent. Yes, the plot is complex. Yes, there are catchy tunes. There is betrayal. There is murder. The primary characters can hardly avoid being larger than life. And yes, there is sex. In short, contemporary opera still supplies the elements that an audience wants.

So what makes Gospel different?

The sex is chaste, even suggestive of Tantric practice. Memorable melodies lean toward the atonal with unusual resolutions. A spare two-note motif is present. Few librettists insinuate an alternative interpretation of a major religion. Then, there is the inversion of voice types and roles.

Yeshua as spiritual leader, lustily performed by baritone Nathan Gunn, reveals a flawed avatar who frequently stumbles along his journey. Mr. Gunn shows deep insight into a character who must experience fleshly temptation in order to be fully human.

William Burden, as Peter, the somewhat priggish disciple with his own agenda, is no traditional tenor with a white hat. Those three Biblical denials cast him as self-serving and fated to travel a rough path to redemption. But oh, this man's singing could melt a heart of stone.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke deserves the privilege of portraying the principal character of an important addition to opera repertory. Luminous tone, crystalline diction, with an Olympian stamina, her acting is sublime with seamless blending of vocal interpretation, gesture, facial expression, and body movement – hers will be the hallmark by which others attempting the part will be contrasted. Historically, Mary Magdalene has been one of the most ambiguous personalities as documented in the Western canon. Recall, though, the archetypal relationship between the Prostitute and Truth. Mary Magdalene is the angelic presence who retains her sensuality.

Another inversion through characterization: Soprano Maria Kanyova, as Miriam, Yeshua's mother, is a subordinate but nevertheless vital character with this role's revisionist concept of Mary Magdalene as the redeemer of her male counterpart. Nevertheless, Ms. Kanyova's superb talent conveys empathy into Miriam's conflicted perception of her son and his lover as well as with Miriam's revealed transgressions.

Ian Robertson's San Francisco Opera Chorus is notoriously excellent, and this may be its most complicated role yet, at times paralleling the function of a Greek chorus. Orchestral sound was superb but with more volume than was warranted during the first act. Conductor Michael Christie corrected the dynamic balance later so that instruments accompanied the singers instead of dominating them. The score itself is rich, luscious and shimmering with mysticism and intrigue. The apparent simplicity of costumes belies the extensive research needed to approximate historical accuracy. Lighting created mystery, sensuality and desolation as needed for plot progression. Minimalist stage sets highlight the historical importance of Biblical characters.

Director Kevin Newbury proves himself an adept director of new art music with his deft execution of Mr. Adamo's mighty creation.

Evolution in performance art is rarely easy and not always welcome, so it tends to advance in fits and starts. Gospel is a lunge forward and as an opus requires wide distribution and multiple viewings before arriving at a balanced evaluation.

Claudia K. Nichols



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