Yesterday afternoon the San Francisco Opera (SFO) concluded its 2012–2013 season with its final performance of Mark Adamo’s new opera, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. It was a choice that reflected the brilliant synthesis of musical and literary values that distinguishes opera at its best. (Adamo not only composed the score but also prepared his own libretto, as he had done for earlier work, such as his best known Little Women opera.) This was a production that solidly established the rightful place of opera in 21st-century culture and affirmed the role of David Gockley’s SFO in leading the way into this new century.
During a press briefing prior to the world premiere performance, Adamo, who had spent most of his time talking about the libretto, was asked if he had anything to say about the music. He summed up the score as a “web of vocal melody gilded by the orchestra.” While it was clear that he wanted to emphasize music in the service of text, giving as much attention to clarity of diction as to clarity of musical phrasing, there was still more than a little false modesty in his summary statement.
To begin with the basics, the entire opera has been framed in a tonality based on F with both major and minor implications. In addition, the first of the two acts concludes with a B major chord sounding over a C minor chord all built on the foundation of a pedal point C, the dominant tone of F tonality. Those who appreciate classical structure will appreciate the extent to which the whole opera unfolds a basic I-V-I cadence, and it should not be long before some devotee of Heinrich Schenker decides whether the Urlinie covers the descent of a major third, a perfect fifth, or an octave.
Of greater significance to the spontaneity of listening “in the moment,” from the very first measures the opera announces a motif based on stepwise motion through which the first chords unfold through the “echoing” of sustained pitches. Many opera lovers will quickly recognize this device, since Benjamin Britten used it so effectively (and quite differently) in portraying the dawn that begins the first act of his Peter Grimes opera. In Adamo’s case, however, those scale steps may be a metaphor for physical steps, declaring from the very first measure that his will be an opera about a journey. Indeed, if the Via Crucis was conceived by Francis of Assisi as the steps of a path for understanding the Crucifixion, then Adamo’s path leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of faith itself.
On the title page of the libretto, Adamo declares that his words were “adapted from the texts of, and research on, the Canonical and Gnostic Gospels.” I previously described this text as a document that “could easily pass for a senior thesis, if not the basis for a higher graduate degree;” and, indeed, there is an underlying thesis claim and argument structure to the libretto. The claim is that the foundation of faith does not consist of some set of events that may be hard to explain but of the stories told in an effort to account for those events and thus make sense of them. The opening Prolegomenon (yes, that’s what Adamo calls it) is a meditation of discontent with the Canonical texts, punctuated by the archaeological discovery of alternative (Gnostic) texts offering different versions of the “authorized versions” of the story of a man from Nazareth upon whom a major religion would be based.
Thus begins an “alternate history” account of the Gospels along a path that, in the final scene of the opera, leads to the crypt which the Magdalene has entered to anoint the body of the Nazarene (Yeshua). The Resurrection is presented as Yeshua’s body standing behind Mary as they engage in their final duet. Reviewing the life they lived together, Mary asks, “What hasn’t died?,” to which Yeshua replies “The story.” This is followed by the only real aria for the Yeshua character, a heart-rending poem in contemporary language all constructed around the two-word cell “Tell them,” which, in all of its repetitions, is sung in stepwise motion. In that moment the attentive listener recognizes, through that stepwise motion, that the entire opera amounts to the fulfillment of Yeshua’s injunction.
I suspect that, when Adamo slipped out that phrase “gilded by the orchestra,” what he really meant was that instrumentation would reinforce that fundamental act of storytelling that forms the heart of the opera. Sonorities provide the context in which the acts of narration take place, analogous to the strategic use of color in a painting depicting an event taken from the stories in the Bible. Those sonorities are highly diverse but never idiosyncratic. (The orchestral requirements are highly conventional.) It is therefore necessary to credit conductor Michael Christie in his management of those sonorities, supporting not only that “web of vocal melody” but also all the visually evocative details of the set designed by David Korins and the costumes designed by Constance Hoffman.
As to the vocal soloists, what is most important is the acting that provides context for the singing. In accepting Adamo’s premise about storytelling, Director Kevin Newbury conceived all characters as ordinary human beings about whom stories would later be told. While Hoffman was inspired by a variety of historical sources for her costumes, the characters themselves assumed a down-to-earth manner. As a result we in the audience could appreciate the distinction between the Magdalene (Sasha Cooke), Yeshua (Nathan Gunn), Peter (William Burden), and Miriam, mother of Yeshua (Maria Kanyova) as both participants in a situation and as the characters in stories that they would later become. This made for a riveting dramatic experience, as compelling in narrative as it was in music.
Adamo’s Magdalene opera has set a high standard for what we can expect from opera as this century continues, but he also points to storytelling as the instrument through which future acts of creation may rise to that same standard.