Last Tuesday I was at the San Francisco Opera for the fifth of the seven performances of the world premiere run of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, with libretto and music by Mark Adamo. It purports to be an alternate version of the life of Jesus, based not only on the canonical gospels but also on the gnostic scriptures found at Nag Hammadi, contemporary research, and, I suspect, lots of wishful thinking. It's a fascinating idea that has resulted in a disappointing opera. I found the music quite enjoyable but as it stretched out to three hours I found it a bit too unvarying. I was sitting in the first row, right in front of the brass section, so obviously I was very aware of when they were playing (and of when the players were whispering to each other), but my impression after I left the opera house was of a smooth continuous stretch without much variation - a seamless garment, if you will. I very much wanted to love this work, or at least find it provocative and challenging, but the plot and themes are - well, keep reading, and I'll try to explain; I just found so much wrong with what's on stage; and there's so much talent and conviction and complete sincerity up there that the final effect was very dispiriting, and I felt with the saints who pleaded with the Lord for a glimpse of his grace during their spiritually barren days.
The opera opens on the single set, a 21st-century archeological dig. Chorus members in casual contemporary dress (they are described in the cast list as "seekers") mill around, until someone lights a fire and they start wondering if they should burn their Bibles, for though they love "the story" (presumably of Christian salvation) they are not sure how to separate it from its "lies." These lies are unspecified. The word is problematic, since the implication is that what we're about to see is The Truth, as if at this far remove there is some empirically verifiable version of what "really happened" in Galilee about 2000 years ago, as opposed to more or less educated choices shaped by our current culture and made from among conflicting and fragmentary materials.
Adamo freely selects and shapes his various sources, which is fine but in that case why the strenuous and inflated pretense that what we're seeing is "authentic"? Texts are combined or cut without regard to the differing motives and meanings and cultural contexts of the original works, and some material is apparently invented. Somewhere in the program we are told that the libretto has over 100 footnotes, which is nice but a bit pointless since we're watching something on stage, not reading the libretto. Some of the footnotes are built into the sung text, and the chorus will occasionally intone "Gospel of Thomas" or some other source, and I have to admit I enjoyed the charming pedantry of having them sing "ibid.", but such choral citations should happen either more frequently or not at all; they are very spotty, raising more questions than they answer. (I'm curious if there actually is an existing ancient Scripture in which Mary his mother confesses that Jesus was the illegitimate product of a failed premarital love affair, and that she seriously considered drinking a midwife's offered potion to induce abortion).
Why should we believe that the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary [Magdalene] is more "truthful" than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Even within the canonical Scriptures themselves, there are choices to be made; to take one example relevant to the subject of this opera, St Paul (or someone writing under the name of St Paul) tells us in one spot that women should be silent in the churches but in another that in Jesus Christ there is "neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free." If we see one passage as false, and the other as true and useful, we're making a choice guided by our personal and cultural beliefs. Why not acknowledge that? Again, why the spurious claims of telling the "real story"? Why the implication that the canonical gospels (which have, after all, touched something very deep in millions of diverse people for many centuries, and therefore should be respected as literature, regardless of your personal belief or lack of belief in them) are less reliable than the gnostic gospels? Why set the whole work in an archeological dig, with its implication of the actual and scientifically uncovered, as opposed to, say, a library, with its plethora of possible texts and interpretations?
Here are some changes made to the events recounted in the brief, fragmentary Gospel of Mary [Magdalene], which I understand is one of the major sources of the libretto: what Mary actually recounts to the apostles, an esoteric revelation made to her in a vision by the dead Jesus about the progress of the soul through various "powers," is all omitted: this omission makes sense, since anything smacking of the miraculous, the divine, or the supernatural is strenuously avoided in the opera, and so this passage would sound like the most ludicrous mystico-moonshine mumbo jumbo; the closest thing in the opera to a religious or spiritual impulse seems to be a generalized wish to improve oneself and do good, and despite the occasional reference to God or demons, the society depicted here is so secular that you wonder why anyone is bothering at all with Yeshua the street preacher. Jesus is clearly the fount of spiritual knowledge in the gospel, not a co-preacher who learns from his equal Mary Magdalene, as he is in the opera. When Peter questions Mary Magdalene after she speaks, doubting that "the Savior" (a term avoided in the opera) revealed these things to her, a mere woman, instead of to them, Mary weeps before responding; the tears, which presumably are too girly, disappear from the stage action. And it's very possible that in the cultural context of the original writer, the point of the confrontation is not that Mary is Peter's equal but that he should listen to her exactly because she is not his equal - that, in the spirit of "suffer the little children to come unto me"and "the last shall be first," even a man favored by Jesus should have the humility to learn even from a woman. Again, let me emphasize that the problem is not that Adamo has changed, adapted, and added to this or any other source, it's that if you're going to do that, it seems a bit disingenuous, not to mention smug, to present your version as, at last, The Truth.
The libretto relies heavily on rhyme. I feel this is a mistake. It's not that Adamo is bad at it; there is little that seems padded or twisted for the sake of the rhyme. But he's not particularly good at it either; I frequently found myself anticipating what the next line would be, based on the rhyme, and over the course of a three hour performance it gets to sounding a little jingly, rather than elevated and formal in tone, which I assume was the intent. Some of the word choices seem too modern or flat; I was a bit surprised when Yeshua said that John the Baptist was his "mentor," which makes Yeshua sound like a junior executive trying to rise in the ranks. (Also, Mentor is from the Iliad, so I was distracted into a different story.) Adamo also uses repetition, which is a more Biblical form of poetic structure, though sometimes its use is puzzling; for example, after the crucifixion Peter, the long-time antagonist of Mary Magdalene, repeats some earlier lines of hers, which seems to indicate he is finally accepting her, but in fact his antagonism not only continues but deepens. These things - the rhyming, some of the word choices, odd use of repetition - are minor, but they add up.
The opening chorus gives way to a crowd in ancient Galilee, and we meet Mary Magdalene. She is not exactly the prostitute of legend, but she is clearly open to love affairs. She seems interested in sex mostly as part of her search for larger, vaguely uplifting spiritual currents. Her boyfriends keep letting her down. She is plucky and independent (she has a lot of money, though its source is unclear, since as I said she is no longer a courtesan). Nowadays she would no doubt describe herself as "spiritual but not religious." She is basically Thais for the NPR set. Early in the opera and again towards the end she makes brief reference to "demons" that trouble her, but they have no real effect on any of her actual deeds or words; they slide thoroughly off the representation of her, and it's difficult to picture this woman having a dark night of the soul. Mary Magdalene is performed by Sasha Cooke, whom I've loved in everything else I've seen her in, and she does what she can here, in particular managing some very touching moments at the end, when she communes with a vision of the dead Yeshua. But the character is in many ways a plaster saint, much more so than the repentant courtesan of legend, with her fascinating historical accretions of story and significance.
We see Mary Magdalene with Simon (Hadleigh Adams), her boyfriend, who has to leave - he needs to return to his wife. The sudden mention of the wife is an interesting and effective little shock, and when Tamar (Marina Harris), the aforementioned and very angry wife, appears with two Roman guards, demanding that both the adulterers be stoned according to the law, we head into the famous episode of Christ and the woman caught in adultery, or rather into Adamo's version of it. There's no suggestion here that whereas for us adultery is mostly a matter of personal betrayal, it might have a different significance in a small, tight-knit, besieged community guided by deep clan loyalties and religious rules of conduct.
Mary Magdalene announces that she the meant the wife no harm, which is a comically stupid thing to say, whether in ancient Galilee or modern America, but I think we're supposed to accept it as essentially well-meaning, especially since Tamar is presented as vindictive and spiteful. She is also a hypocrite, as we discover when Yeshua the street preacher suddenly appears and confronts Tamar with the accusation that she has had five husbands and is also herself having an affair. He asks if she still wants to stone the two. Rather unconvincingly, she does not, as if people were not deeply skilled in condemning others for faults they share (there's always some self-excusing distinction that can be made). Anyway, Tamar and her husband (both fine performers) disappear from stage to sort out their business, and Mary Magdalene is grateful to Yeshua for saving her life, but is skeptical when he invites her to come hear him at the local synagogue.
It's always emotionally satisfying to see a hypocrite unmasked, but dramatically it seems too easy. Why not complicate our reactions by having Tamar be a good wife, or a good person? It's a sort of emotional bookkeeping, in which we excuse our main character's adultery with the husband because the wife is a bitch. If I'm remembering correctly, it's a different woman in the canonical gospels who is shaken when Jesus knows all about her several husbands even though she is a stranger. (In the operatic version, he might easily be repeating common gossip.) In the canonical version, it is a crowd (that is, the whole community, not just one angry wife) that is planning to stone the woman caught in adultery. Jesus says that those among them without sin (not specifically sexual sins, but sin) should throw the first stone. No one in the crowd has the arrogance to claim sinlessness (a condition belonging only to God), and they drift away, and Jesus tells the woman to sin no more. So in the opera, we have a single hypocrite unmasked and thwarted; but in the gospel version, we have an entire community challenged to a personal examination of conscience, which leads to a re-examination of the customary laws in the light of compassion for shared human weakness. So in what way is this revised version superior to or more daring than the canonical version?
Mary Magdalene does go to the synagogue to hear Yeshua, where he is announcing that he has come with a sword to divide, to set mother against son. . . . The rabble-rousing attracts the interest of Roman guards, but his mother Miriam, accompanied by two other sons, intervenes, begging them to let her oldest boy off because he's mentally disturbed. (Maria Kanyova is Miriam, and does a good job with what she's given to work with.) When they agree to let him go, she warns Mary Magdalene repeatedly to run from her son, because he's so messed up (hey, thanks Mom!) and just look at how he treats her!
In fact she's pretty much the stereotype of a nagging Jewish mother, obsessing over and berating her oldest son in equal measure (first Tamara, now this - women not named Mary Magdalene don't come off very well in this opera, but then in all fairness neither do any of the men). Here's where she confesses to Mary Magdalene the whole story of the illegitimate birth and so forth (which is actually kind of an odd overly personal story to tell someone you've just met; wouldn't a woman at that time try to hide such shame?). And that's the reason Jesus is always going on about his Father in Heaven, and why he rejects his mother and (legitimate) brothers - his earthly father didn't stick around, so, clearly: Daddy issues!
And that's typical of this work: everything is reduced to personal "issues" (all understood in the cultural context of 21st century America, not ancient Galilee). As mentioned earlier, all references to the miraculous or supernatural are shorn away. But more than that, all need for the miraculous or supernatural is removed, to such an extent that it felt odd when God was occasionally mentioned - what does He have to do with any of this? Yeshua is allowed the first half of his famous quip about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, but not the pointed second half: "and to God the things that are God's." There isn't much here that seems to be God's, and that's fine, but in that case you have to wonder why anyone is paying attention to any of this. It seems beyond belief that any of these people could be motivated by a moral necessity that lies outside themselves, and we don't actually see much of what lies outside the main characters, except for the occasional reference to the yoke of Rome; where is the febrile and tense religious atmosphere of the time that led so many to expect a Messiah? It's reduced to a man shamed because he's illegitimate.
There are references to God's (or the universe's, or something's) "design" (characters often mention that they interTWINE in a deSIGN), but no explanation is given of what the design is, or why there is one. There is no reference to Original Sin, or the death of Jesus as expiation to redeem fallen humanity through God's love, and no reference to Israel's special covenant with God (the Jews here seem to be a group bound together by Roman oppression rather than Mosaic law). At one point Yeshua is asked about circumcision, and there was some laughter in the audience. But this is not a trivial question. Are people unaware that circumcision is the physical sign of Abraham's covenant with Jehovah?
Yeshua is pretty much just another street preacher, and not a particularly effective one, judging by what we see here. For one thing, he is unable to reconcile his good friend Peter to his new friend Mary Magdalene. In this version Peter takes the role usually held in Biblical epics by Judas (who is written out of this version) as the disciple who mistakes Jesus's message as a call to arms for independence from Rome, whereas Mary Magdalene is more about personal spiritual growth. And she asks a lot of questions, which annoys the guys. (The gender roles here are quite traditional: men are immersed in the business of the world, including fighting, while the women are intent on the domestic and the intimate.)
Mary Magdalene rather cynically uses her money to buy acceptance from Peter, who rather cynically accepts the money. Neither they nor Yeshua seem disturbed by the cynicism or the basic disagreement on the purpose of their group. Yeshua ambles in on the money changing hands and seems mostly impressed at his new girlfriend's ability to work the system. Where is the man who drove the money-changers from the Temple? Where is the gospel Jesus, who consistently condemns the rich and demands that they give their money to the poor? That message would be far more challenging to the opera audience, and to current American society, than the anodyne messages we get here.
The rest of the story is shocking only in its banality: you see, Yeshua is pretty messed up and angry, but no wonder 'cause have you met his Mom, she's a piece of work, but he met this great woman and she's really smart and together, and honestly I don't know what she sees in him he doesn't even have a job, but his friends don't like her and really she's just too good for them anyway so they resent her until finally wedding bells break up that old apostolic gang of mine. We all know guys like that, saved by the love of a good woman, but it seems unlikely they would be studied and worshipped and argued over 2,000 years later.
The apostles throw Yeshua a bachelor party, but talking about Jesus's bachelor party makes the whole thing sound too frisky, even with the Song of Solomon-style verses about her breasts being like gazelles ("Stop talking about her breasts, " Yeshua finally announces). Maybe John Waters or Luis Bunuel or Flannnery O'Connor should have handled this material: when Mary talks about considering an abortion or Jesus has a bachelor party, shouldn't there be some sort of frisson, some sort of shocked amusement that maybe takes us deeper into what we really feel about this story? Should it all really feel so much like dutiful uplift?
Anyway, Yeshua clearly has some issues with women because of the whole thing with his mom, and Mary Magdalene overhears him telling Peter that she's so good she's practically a man anyway so Peter should relax, and though Yeshua tells her he was just saying that because you know what Peter is like, she almost calls off the wedding but then he learns to learn from her and after the intermission which ends the very long first half they start appearing in public in flowing white robes as co-preachers, with Miriam radiant at their side (Mary Magdalene has been so good for him!) and Peter tagging along. They start talking a lot more about love, in such general terms that it's really not clear why the Romans decide Yeshua needs to be eliminated for these bromides; it's as if an angry mob wanted to crucify one of Hallmark's more sentimental versifiers. (And why do they not crucify his wife and co-preacher as well? it's not as if the Romans were shy about torturing women.) There is no resurrection, but Yeshua rises up like Erda and tells Mary Magdalene to carry on, even though they both know Peter is going to write her out of the story (much as most of the apostles are written out of this story, I suppose).
Many years ago I read Gershom Scholem's book on Sabbatai Sevi, and one insight which has stuck with me over the years is his suggestion that the Sabbataian movement did not outlive the false messiah for more than a few years because Sevi himself was too much of a cipher for belief in him to take strong root, lacking as he did the powerful personality and philosophy of, say, Jesus of Nazareth (who is, of course, in some eyes just another false messiah). I thought about Scholem's words during this opera, because what we have here is an absence at the center. I am a long-time fan of Nathan Gunn; he is a charismatic performer, and I've seen him give powerful performances as conflicted men and (even more difficult) as radiantly good men (his Billy Budd is famous). So I'm puzzled by his recessive, overly affable performance here.
And I have to blame the way Adamo has structured the role. If you're ruling out entirely, as the opera does, that Yeshua is in fact the Messiah, or otherwise linked with the divine, you are still left historically with a powerful teacher and preacher whose influence has long outlasted his time on earth. Whoever wrote the Gospel of St Matthew knew you need to start with your strong material: in that book we go almost immediately to the Sermon on the Mount. In this opera, the subversive and actually perverse and essential words of the Sermon are not heard. When we finally hear some specifics about what "loving your neighbor" might mean, we're already two or possibly two and a half hours into the performance (I actually checked my watch to see how long we had to wait before hearing that we should feed the hungry or care for the sick, but frankly I was checking my watch fairly often so I can't be more specific about the timing). But important as it is to feed the hungry and care for the sick, nothing in those actions is a potential threat to existing society; where is the Jesus who not only associated with but sought out the low-class, the fishermen and tax gatherers, the foreigners and the lepers and the weak, and denounced the rich and powerful? The Jesus who announced repeatedly that the last would be first, that the meek would inherit the earth, that the selfish rich man would burn in Hell while the scabby beggar outside his door was basking in Abraham's bosom?
William Burden as Peter gives an impassioned, vocally distinguished performance, probably the most memorable of the evening, and his achievement is even more impressive when you consider how Adamo has stacked the deck against his character. We don't really know why he objects to Mary Magdalene so strongly, though it's hinted at one point that he has some unresolved feelings for her as well as for Yeshua; it's mostly because he's kind of a jerk who is too arrogant to listen to a woman. I assume he is a stand-in for institutional religion, particularly the Roman Catholic Church that claims its authority from him as the first in a long line of direct apostolic succession from Jesus himself. As such Peter is the villain of the piece, and though he is not actually made responsible for the betrayal of Jesus to his executioners, his good or endearing moments are jettisoned while Adamo gleefully seizes on his canonical denial three times, because in this version the Peter who wanted to fight against Rome is also a coward who runs when the real fighting starts. Mary Magdalene, of course, boldly goes to seek the body, even though Peter practically whimpers as he warns her of the danger. (Jesus does get his line about those who live by the sword dying by the sword, but since Mary Magdalene said it earlier, it is presumably one of the many things he's learned from her.)
Contrast the treatment of Peter here with that of the chief prosecutor in Shaw's Saint Joan (Cardinal Beaufort? apologies if I get some details wrong here; I'm working from memory). Though Joan is clearly an extraordinary person - so extraordinary that she is one of those few who manages to move the heavy mass of humanity forward, however slightly - Shaw treats her enemies with understanding and respect. Far from being a corrupt, cowardly hack, the prosecutor is a man of integrity and intelligence - you believe that people would believe in him. He has cogent, insightful arguments to make about why Joan is a dangerous example. And though ultimately we side with her, it's not a cheap or foregone conclusion. Her stature is increased when her opponents are not straw men. The exaggeration of bad qualities - and I see this sort of thing way too often - deadens the drama by removing the debate and the ambiguity. It's all too clear which person we're supposed to side with, and which reject.
And the fact is that it is Peter's church that has lasted, and not Mary Magdalene's. However admirable you find the free-form spiritual seeking of the gnostic movements, it is of its very nature too vague and shapeless to have a long institutional life (Elaine Pagels makes this point in The Gnostic Gospels). And many of the gnostic movements, with their emphasis on arcane knowledge passed down only to a select few, were far more elitist than the official Church, which held (however inconsistently or with whatever hypocrisy) that all souls are the same in the eyes of God, a potentially dangerous and certainly radical doctrine of leveling.
The main point of the evening seems to be that women were cut out from the development of Christianity. But, pace Adamo, such is the deep human need for both masculine and feminine energies, and such the dynamics between men and women, that women have had a powerful and continuing presence in Christianity, in ways both official and unofficial, real and symbolic: the Church itself is referred to as "Mother Church"; Wisdom is traditionally seen as a woman (Sancta Sophia), as are other virtues; Mary the mother of Jesus has a powerful continuing presence, particularly in the Roman Catholic church; many parishes from the first century to today are run largely by women; abbesses and nuns often had great power and influence. In the spirit of George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke, there were many remarkable women (as well as men) whose names are forgotten though their beneficent spiritual influence ripples on. It's a loss that women were excluded from the priestly hierarchy, but the hierarchy and its earthly powers are, from a spiritual point of view, ultimately irrelevant; the purpose of the Church is to help the believer into the divine presence, which is open to all (as is the meritocracy of the sainthood, and the many female saints outrank mere priests). And certainly many Renaissance popes had mistresses who helped them rule, as Mary Magdalene does Yeshua in the opera, but I think nonetheless that few of those men were renowned for piety and virtue.
As I got up from my seat at the end of the long evening, feeling downcast and disappointed, I heard a white-haired matron behind me say with a bit of self-satisfaction, "Well, I liked it." Well, why wouldn't she? The main message here seems to be that men should listen to well-off women, at least when they're as intelligent as Mary Magdalene - in other words, when they're (presumably) like the satisfied white-haired matron. Who can disagree? But shouldn't a convincing representation of Jesus make us pause and examine and re-evaluate our lives, not just pat ourselves on the back for our advanced understanding and spiritual superiority?