Saturday, June 29, 2013

Gawd-Awful Opera Performance of "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene"

I've been mostly pleased with the reign of David Gockley at San Francisco Opera.  Most of the performances of established works have been top-notch on his watch.  The newly commissioned English-language works have been a bit off key.  The latest misfire in American opera is "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," a world premiere playing this summer.  I sat through this one last night.  I felt like I needed a resurrection afterwards.

The only decent performer was the female lead, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke.  She hit all the right notes and physically exhibits the smokin' hot sensuality of a libertine temptress.  I was really hoping she would take it all off like Barbara Hershey did when she played Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ, but alas it was not meant to be.  The other lead performers were forgettable and could barely sing over the orchestra.  I was in a box seat and I could hardly hear Nathan Gunn as Yeshua until he somehow cranked up the volume in Act II.  I enjoyed hearing him in "The Barber of Seville" in 2006.

There were some incongruities in "Magdalene" that I could not explain.  The two policemen used the word "correlation" a couple of times.  I don't think the concept of a statistical correlation existed in ancient times.  Historical works by Karl Pearson (Biometrika: "Notes on the History of Correlation") and Douglas Curran-Everett in Advances in Physiology Education trace its modern lineage as a mathematical concept.  Another line in the libretto referred to the granting of "God's grace."  The concept of grace has a long history in Catholicism but its usage in ancient times was different from what a modern audience would understand from a Sunday sermon.  The libretto for "Magdalene" cited plenty of Old Testament references but I didn't see a supertitle reference for the "grace" line.

This opera can get away with odd word choices like those because it's conceived as a modern reimagining of history.  The tourists (excuse me, "seekers") in modern slob dress wandering around the excavation site on stage represent contemporary audiences inserting themselves into an old story and drawing out new, subjective meanings.  That works if the thrust of the story upon which artists hang those interpretations is believable.  This particular telling of "Magdalene" did not deliver a believable story.

The story was hard to follow because the librettist, composer, and other designers threw in plenty of incongruous distractions where there should have been dramatic build-up.  The pacing in Act I was incredibly slow.  The relationship between the Magdalene and Miriam was never fully developed, but the story arc just clumsily assumed they would get along.  The musical score was jarring in some places, with odd percussionist touches adding ham-fisted attempts at foreboding.  The music during what should have been the most romantic interludes between Mary Magdalene and Yeshua was either poorly-timed or non-existent.  This was definitely not Romeo and Juliet, a far superior representation of doomed lovers.  I did appreciate the effort to reimagine the female Gospel characters by putting classic lines into their mouths, like the abbreviated "let this cup pass from me" soliloquy.

I can recall other modern works that successfully inserted modern sensibilities into ancient texts.  I was so bored and frustrated with "Magdalene" that I started to imagine elements from those other works in this dreary opera just to liven things up a bit.  I wanted to see the alien spaceship from Monty Python's Life of Brian land in the excavation.  I hoped for a denouement where Mary Magdalene and Yeshua get married and run off to Gaul to found the Merovingian bloodline as described in Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln's Holy Blood, Holy Grail.  It could even have used some campy fight scenes from cult classic Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter to liven up the boring dialogue.  The Magdalene's visit to the Nazarene's tomb featured a ghostly Yeshua rising from mist in the style of Bela Lugosi, making me wonder whether the librettist got his inspiration from underground literature like The Last Days of Christ the Vampire.  Yeshua didn't suck any blood, which didn't matter because the whole show sucked anyway.

I'll wait for the next operatic performance of "Salome" to see a good modern take on ancient times.  John the Baptist made an appearance in "Magdalene" but he's all over "Salome" in many ways.  "Salome" also tends to feature its female lead showing her all-natural goodies the way nature intended.  Aspiring librettists, take note.