A Second Look Review: San Francisco Opera Mounts Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” Magnificently – July 7, 2013

Having commented previously on its world premiere [see Warm Reception for Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2013], I attended  sixth and last scheduled performance of Mark Adamo’s new opera in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. This second report gives me a chance to give my further impressions of the work and of the potential contributions of composer Mark Adamo to American opera.

The San Francisco Opera Resources Provided Adamo’s Opera

“The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene” is a monumental work. The production given it by the San Francisco Opera seemed to defy the economics of modern day opera production.

The opera provided the composer, Mark Adamo, whose two previous operas “Little Women and “Lysistrata” require modestly-sized orchestras, with an orchestra of the size required for the very largest Wagnerian works – larger than needed for “Parsifal”, of a size that seemed ready to assay “Siegfried” and “Goetterdaemmerung”.

A large chorus was assembled. A cast of international rank was secured for the four major roles, including superstar Nathan Gunn as the Christ-figure, Yeshua.

A large and intelligently conceived unit set (by David Korins) was created. An experienced director, Kevin Newbury (staging the first of two successive world premieres in a five week period), was brought in to stage the work.

[Below: the unit set for “The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The Reactions to the World Premiere

Of course, lavishness in presentation does not assure a successful opera. Some of the first night critics seemed confused or unimpressed. The Los Angeles Times reviewer seemed to see it as Mary Magdalene, the Broadway Musical and expressed concern about its debt to the works of  Stephen Sondheim

Yet, as the composer himself noted, the specific criticisms of the first night reviewers seemed in disagreement with each other as to what they experienced, and, in the aggregate, with one praising what another disparaged, arguably canceled each other out.

The First Night Reviews

But a reviewer’s task at a first performance of a new opera is a difficult one, since a world premiere, almost by definition, is uncharted territory.

I, myself, have high confidence in my ability to assess a performance of Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” or Puccini’s “Tosca”, each of which I have seen in many different stagings at different opera houses.

I’m even confident in my current assessment of a new work, like Heggie’s “Moby Dick”, because, at the present time, I’ve seen four performances in three different opera houses with different artists in a couple of the key roles. My confidence will increase as I see new interpretations of the work in new stagings with different casts.

[Below: Yeshua (Nathan Gunn, left) finds comfort in the words of Mary Magdalene (Sasha Cooke, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


But at a world premiere one’s points of reference are limited. One does not have CDs of the recorded music, nor DVDs nor even YouTube highlights of the work. One has only one’s memories of other experiences with which to compare and contrast  what is being seen and heard.

The points of reference are limited. You can talk about the source material and the theatrical experience, whether the staging is interesting, the character motivations clear, the music or drama absorbing or dull.

These are all subjective reports that I suspect most regular opera goers, such as subscribers to an opera company’s complete season of offerings, take in stride. They won’t really know what to think about a performance until they’ve seen it themselves, and, even then, it will be a different performance than what the reviewer has described..

Musical Originality

A reviewer can also talk about the degree of originality in the music. Here, one might expect the experts to be objective. But that is almost surely a subjective judgment also on the reviewer’s part, especially on first hearing. Thus, if a reviewer says, this composer is influenced by the music of Stravinsky, or Richard Strauss, or Sondheim, or whomever, it’s likely that the reviewer is remembering a musical phrase from another composer’s work, that, to some degree or another, the new work appears to the reviewer to mimic.

There indeed might be an influence from an earlier composer that affected the new work consciously or unconsciously. But, if the originality of each musical phrase is a criterion by which a new work must be judged, a reviewer’s first night first impression can be uncertain evidence.

Courts have had to spend many days adjudicating charges of plagiarism of a musical phrase, especially in the case of a hit song in popular music, where a share of the song’s profits is worth fighting for.

In the opera world, unoriginality is a more problematic charge. It’s meant pejoratively, and is often pronounced by those who consider themselves elitely informed. Plagiarism could occur and presumably adjudicated if proven, but usually it’s meant as a badge of musicological dishonor.

A musicologist surrounded by vocal and symphonic scores, performance CDs and the like, can make a case systematically. “Here is the sonic and textual evidence that Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” influenced Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’.” But absent testimony from the latter composer himself, it’s musicological theory, even if a credible theoretical proposition. Nor does “Rigoletto” seem compromised in any way, even if a musicologist is correct.

But in today’s eclectic musical world, where a myriad of styles are immediately accessible, other than assigning a computer the task of producing random sounds (which has been done without building  an enthusiastic audience for the results), it is probably unlikely that anyone will create music for opera that does not remind someone of some other composer’s music.

Thoughts About “Mary Magdalene”

On the contrary, I have argued elsewhere that too many opera composers, to the peril of the reputation and survival of contemporary opera, have ignored the highly popular and immediately accessible music of two art forms in which American music is triumphant – musical theater and cinematic musical scores.

In my comments about “Moby Dick”, I have expressed the belief that Heggie’s opera points to a new era of 21st century American works that will enter the performance repertory. I acknowledge these two main streams of influence for Heggie’s work – the Broadway musical and the orchestral scores of major Hollywood movies.

Although there are likely academic musicologists who would find either source of influence to be corrupting and unworthy of serious music, it is my belief that many (perhaps, all) of the greatest masterpieces of the operatic repertory have benefited from the infusion of popular music into the art form by the likes of Mozart, Rossini, Gounod and Puccini.

[Below: Mary Magdalene (Sasha Cooke, center) spreads the word of God; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Decoding Magdalene

I spoke in my previous review about my feeling that the opera is a luxuriously created disputation to the Vatican powers who determine Roman Catholic dogma by their interpretation of scripture (or public mood or whatever process they use to change existing church doctrine). The opera subtly argues for a change in the Roman Catholic Church’s positions on the role of women in church governance.

In our secular age, Adamo’s richly footnoted libretto will likely have far less impact than Martin Luther’s 95 theses, but Adamo’s libretto is a work of protestant scholarship, and, Adamo, like Luther, seeks to right perceived wrongs in the church he had for so long embraced.

I consider Adamo’s opera as a kind of opposite to Pizzetti’s religious sentiments, as expressed in his mid-20th century opera [Ferruccio Furlanetto, Ian Campbell Team Up Memorably for Pizzetti’s “Murder in the Cathedral” – San Diego Opera, March 30, 2013] in which a church archbishop accepts martyrdom for holding firm against the “temptation” of accepting the very reasonable policy positions of the secular power, English King Henry II.

But “Magdalene” is something beyond an artistic expression of submission to or protestation against elements of church doctrine. To this extent it can be compared as a statement of  composer Adamo’s simultaneous attraction to and separation from church doctrine with gay composer Karol Szymanowski’s more mystical “King Roger” [Mariusz Kwiecien in Reverential, Resplendent “King Roger” – Santa Fe Opera – August 3, 2012].

In my personal conversation with the composer [see Redemption for Mary Magdalene: An Interview with Mark Adamo] there was no doubt that he linked the exclusion of full participation of women in the church hierarchy with the church’s refusal to sanctify gay marriage. The marriage of the illegitimate Nazarene to his brilliant and worldly Magdalene disciple, I suspect has a personal meaning that goes far beyond what some may see as a theatrical device.

[Below: Peter (William Burden, front center, in white) is horrified at the crucifixion of Yeshua (Nathan Gunn, above, attached to cross); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The Promises of the Future

Repeat performances of “Magdalene”, as with all durable operas, yield new treasures and give insights into what will, in the early history of the opera, be considered its “highlights”.

The lyrical passages with which the opera abounds are even sweeter and more engaging on repeated hearings. The bedroom scene with its extended arias, beautifully orchestrated, between the Nazarene and the Magdalene, I suspect, will be an early favorite of the opera’s admirers.

Adamo’s verses are those of a poet immersed in the exotic imagery of the Psalms and  Song of Songs. In the scene of the wedding night, the simplicity of Adamo’s poetry  (a feature for which he drew some criticism from certain first night reviewers) adds an effect of its own. The Magdalene speaks of her love for the time of morning when “the sun is in bloom as if it means to bless the room”.

Adamo’s palette of music and poetry is impressive in the interweaving of the poetry, the vocal lines, and the orchestral instrumentation (with frequently recurring motives that move from instrument to instrument). All of the elements are there to suggest that Adamo is one of the contemporary American composers who I believe are likely to achieve the goal of enriching the operatic repertory.

Of “Magdalene” Itself

Many opera companies will find this a difficult work to stage. As implied above, the San Francisco Opera’s commitment to the production may well be beyond the resources of any but the world’s top tier opera companies. And to some of these, the subject matter will seem controversial in a way that, say, Heggie’s “Moby Dick” will not.

Even so, the more I see of it, the more I am convinced that the opera itself is an impressive project. The long introductory scene at an archaeological site that, I suspect, some might want to cut or abridge in a later revival, is worthy in its own right and is an essential part of Adamo’s  concept.

The San Francisco Audience

One observation that I believe is important to record is how large a part of the audience seemed to receive it favorably, both at its first and sixth performances. People were seen leaving at intermission (a few even during the performance), but, having checked with the doormen who observe early departures, I am informed that there was no particular difference in the numbers between those who left midway during this opera those that leave during performances of “standard repertory” operas.

Since this performance was on my subscription series, my conversations with those whom I have known for years, found that the most of the longtime subscribers that I checked with enjoyed it. If my confidence in Adamo’s future achievements in opera is high, the audience reaction with the vociferous applause at opera’s end makes me cautiously optimistic that this work will build a fan-base of its own.

I look forward to repeated hearings, and hope it prospers in live performance.

The conducting of Michael Christie.

One further note. This was the San Francisco Opera debut of Conductor Michael Christie.

It was unquestionably one of the great conducting debuts at the War Memorial Opera House, establishing a rapport with the savvy and experienced San Francisco Opera Orchestra achieved by its musical director Nicola Luisotti and only a handful of other conductors in the decades since the opera orchestra was formed. (Prior to the 1960s, the opera orchestra was comprised of musicians from the San Francisco Symphony.)

[Below: Conductor Michael Christie; edited image of a promotional photograph.]


The summer season of San Francisco Opera ended with this last performance of Adamo’s work, but it ended on an optimistic note about the health of American opera.

It especially showed the ability of the San Francisco Opera and its General Director David Gockley, whose commitments to American opera have been so steadfast over so many decades, to give new American operas such a head start on success.