For weeks I had been looking forward to the night of Saturday, June 23 2013 and the second performance ever of the world premier production of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
Tension began building a few minutes before the announced starting time of 8:00 when the heavy front curtain went up to show the intriguing set. The bottom of the cast page in the program seemed to present some paradoxical information:
The time is now. The place is Galilee, the first century C. E.
Interesting program articles by the Director and by the Composer, together with later reference to Wikipedia revealed the following bits of history.
Before about 1890 it was generally believed in the western world that the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in the New Testament were the only accounts ever written about the life of Jesus. It came as a shock when an incomplete document written not later than the fifth century C. E. The Gospel of Mary Magdalena was discovered. A half century later a treasure trove of Gnostic manuscripts was discovered including several other gospels.
Adamo found a kindred spirit in David Gockley, General Director of the San Francisco Opera who commissioned him to write an opera on the subject. Like all good historical drama, the opera has a strong historical background, but it is not history. The principal characters and their important actions are based on the real actions of real people, but minor actions and minor characters maybe products of the author’s imagination, chosen for their dramatic quality rather than for historical accuracy. In this case, most of the libretto consists of the English translation of actual words found in the gospel or other related Gnostic manuscripts.
Since composer and librettist were the same person, it is not surprising that words and music fit perfectly: every note is right for the action it accompanies; every word is right for the music to which it is sung. The action, the costumes, the lighting are all excellent in themselves. And everything fits together to form a whole even greater than the sum of its parts.
Make me blind with your kisses.
Wake the night!
And when you do, I shall have lost myself.
But when I lose myself,
I find myself, I find myself
In you . . .
She is attempting to find her spiritual self through physical love with Simon (Hadleigh Adams), but Simon’s wife Tara(Marina Harris) appears and threatens to have Mary stoned to death.
Which husband? Isn’t he your fifth?
Not counting whom you’re sleeping with.
. . . . .
What is she to you?
The penalty is stoning.”
You can cast this stone?
The next scene is in Capernaum where “three preachers – including Yeshua – expound from the synagogue court. A thin crowd listens as they would to buskers in a Manhattan subway”. A Pharisee (James Creswell) shows up and taunts Yeshua with his illegitimate birth. Yeshua responds angrily,
Damn you. You impostor.
You reek of sin
Each of you’s a whitewashed grave:
Clean on the outside; rotten within!
The Pharisee denigrates his indictment “coming from a . . . “ [he pauses for a beat to allow the onlookers to hiss “Bastard”, then finishes his sentence with]“ . . . carpenter. Your work is done here, Nazarene.” “My work has just begun.” “Your work is done here” “My work has just begun.”
Rabbi, forgive him.
He doesn’t know what he’s done.
We’ll take him. We’ll take care of him.
He’s their brother. He’s my son.
Yeshua merely looks at her, but when she repeats, “Yeshua. Follow me.” he responds stonily, not looking at her, “My mother, my brothers: who are they?”
A few minutes later Yeshua, still denying his mother has run off followed by his brothers – only the two women are left on stage. Miriam warns Mary,
It’s you. The girl.
The Magdalene woman.
He spoke of you this morning
Rich girl. Sad Girl.
I’m giving you a warning.
Run: run like the wind
He will ruin you.
Mary responds carefully but firmly:
But – even if all you say is true,
Maybe I can teach him something, too.
Mother and consort bless each other – they are allies in their love of Yeshua.
Scene 4: The next morning Yeshua is moody, thoughtful, and silent. Mary takes in his mood. She doesn’t press him, but muses aloud – not looking at him – about love and desire:
I can tell you what I’ve learned from you
About how to live;
About giving and receiving love,
And how it’s better to give;
About how love is not the same thing as desire,
And how desire can lie. But –
I can’t say I don’t love you.
And I won’t try.
She continues in this vein for a few pages, all to tender and moving music. Still no response. Finally she gives up and prepares to leave. At the last minute Yeshua speaks, beginning with a whisper but gradually gaining confidence:
But you’ve brought me to life.
Radiant woman, Wisdom –
You’ve brought me to life.
Someday I’ll explain to you
Why I used to believe
That love was low, and shameful –
Why I was naïve
Surely I will hurt you and disappoint you,
Sure as day follows night;
Be with me – Wisdom;
(Mary): I will be with you, always –
(Yeshua): Everywhere with me – Wisdom;
(Mary): Everywhere with you, always –
(together): Every day rejoicing,
Every day, daily my delight.
They touch – and the light fades, ending the most beautiful scene in the opera.
There are too many story lines in this complex opera for me to do justice to all of them. In particular, I have had to neglect the role of Peter (William Burden). Which is a shame, because Burden has perhaps the strongest voice among the quartet of excellent singers. And a couple of the scenes in which he attempts, unsuccessfully, to force Mary from the inner group of disciples have considerable dramatic tension. But choices have to be made, and since time and space are running out, I’ll jump directly to the Crucifixion.
I would love to quote the whole beautiful duet of this final scene, but I’ll have to be content with only a couple of verses. Mary is discouraged: “What hasn’t died?” she asks, and Yeshua replies that she must tell the world their story:
Tell them what we did.
Tell them what we tried for.
Tell them what we gave.
Tell them that we laughed.
Tell them we were foolish.
Tell them we were brave.
Then, at the very end, Yeshua:
Tell them: and
Ev'rywhere you go,
However far you wander,
However dark the night,
I will be with – Wisdom;
Everywhere with you – Wisdom;
Every day rejoicing,
Daily your delight.
You will be with me, always;
Ev’rywhere, ev’rywhere with me always
Every day rejoicing,
Daily my delight.
I shall tell them
Earlier I called Act I Scene 4 “the most beautiful scene in the opera.” I take that back. This final scene, much of it using the same music, is even more beautiful. Run, do not walk, to see one of the remaining performances. You may never, ever, have another opportunity.
- Sung in English with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including one intermission
Wed 06/19/13 7:30pm, Sat 06/22/13 8:00pm, Tue 06/25/13 8:00pm, Fri 06/28/13 8:00pm. Tue 07/2/13 7:30pm, Fri 07/5/13 8:00pm, Sun 07/7/13 2:00pm
San Francisco Opera
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102
All photos except as noted are by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera
All quotes are from the libretto of the opera