I've come away excited after many memorable evenings with San Francisco Opera, but perhaps not quite so much -- and certainly not in the same way -- as I did after seeing the world premiere of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, with music and libretto by Mark Adamo (final performances on July 5 and 7).
After reading about the widely differing views of Mary Magdalene in the story of Jesus Christ -- was she merely a fervent follower and reformed prostitute, or a spiritual leader in her own right, even Christ's "companion"? -- Adamo spent years immersed in the scholarship on Mary M. and Jesus. This included studies that emerged after the discovery of some 50 fragments or manuscripts in Egypt in 1945: the Gnostic Gospels, as opposed to the biblical or canonical Gospels. In several of these accounts, Mary is someone close to Jesus, the person who best understands his message -- indeed, someone who enlarges his thinking. Some of the writings even indicate a rivalry between Peter and Mary, which is understandable, especially because Peter could hardly view a lowly woman as an equal, or even someone worth listening to (which doesn't sound all that ancient, does it?).
It was absolutely thrilling to hear and see an opera that depicts all these individuals as real people, eloquently grappling with real questions, in complex relationships. These include the tense relations between Jesus (here Yeshua) and his mother (here Miriam). In the opera, Yeshua has always been considered a bastard, and Miriam knew she was pregnant when she married but believed her illegitimate child was somehow part of a grand design. As Adamo writes in the program, he hoped to create "a credibly human original version of the story that we know only from its later and fantastical elaborations -- elaborations glamorized by miracle and hardened by dogma."
I think he succeeded wonderfully. We love seeing our favorite operas again and again, hearing them sung by different voices, viewing a production with new costumes and sets and perhaps an unusual take (Rigoletto in 1950s Las Vegas, Carmen during the Spanish Civil War). Adamo's latest opera, too, has beautiful, memorable music. But it may be the first opera worth revisiting for its libretto alone (in which, I understand, Adamo documents his points with 116 footnotes). Beyond the scholarship, his libretto is as complex, coherently imagined and deeply interesting as a literary novella, from which you'd gain more on rereading.
Not to mention the fact that its protagonist is a woman who is at least as questing, strong, insightful, and wise as any man. The flaw in this production is that Sasha Cooke, as Mary M., is far more charismatic and vocally resplendent than Nathan Gunn, as Yeshua: In another era, his followers might have thrown him over for her!
Interestingly, a few weeks ago I saw another of this summer's offerings from SF Opera: Mozart's Così fan tutte, from 1790. It was lovely, highly enjoyable, well sung and acted, about two men who bet a third that their fiancés will be faithful, then try to prove it by romancing the other's intended in disguise (as if the women couldn't...yeah). It is a pure pleasure piece, a bonbon.
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, is a three-course meal with a hearty entrée, an intellectual as well as operatic delight.
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 415.864.3330, sfopera.com.