Only Human: The bold music and faulty theology of 'The Gospel of Mary Magdalene'

Photo: Cory Weaver

When the San Francisco Opera premiered Mark Adamo’s opera, “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” on June 19th, there was some nervousness that the treatment would cause a backlash from those concerned about whether or not the production would uphold tradition regarding Christian gospels and Catholic teaching about Christ, his mother, his disciples and Mary Magdalene. As someone who subscribes to this tradition I want say that the opera is not a threat. In fact, it is a great disappointment.

First let me say that the music is strong: its leitmotifs, its color, its lyricism, its structural evolution through the resolutions and irresolutions of dramatic conflicts and struggles give musical substance to a facile libretto. David Korin’s set is an archeological space of many layers and memories—itself a theater—locating us not only in the past but also in the present. Through the subtle, intelligent direction of Kevin Newbury and the lighting of Christopher Maravich, it is a space that can register an interior drama as well as hint at something transcendent. So, too, with the costumes of Constance Hoffman, adroitly used to signal symbolic transformations of the characters, particularly Mary Magdalene (Sasha Cooke) from a rich, searching, outcast to Sophia/wisdom, the companion/disciple/wife of a strangely confused and confident Jesus, whom the opera calls Yeshua. 

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Cooke’s voice is rich and subtle and well matched by Maria Kanyova, who brings us through a guilt-tormented, bitter Miriam, mother of Yeshua, to a sort of acceptance of her role in the design she intuited when pregnant with her son. William Burden’s tenor also captures his difficult role as Peter trying to follow Yeshua. He opposes Mary, not able to understand the relationship she has with Yeshua nor able keep up with the changes in his teaching she elicits. Nathan Gun as Yeshua appeared under par at the beginning, but his voice and the character warmed up as the opera progressed. Overall, however, he seemed to lack the power and charisma that the part demands.

The audience generously offered the whole production, orchestra and composer a standing ovation. For all its merits, however, there was something strangely empty about this opera. I believe the problem does not lie in Mark Adamo’s evident accomplishment as a composer but in the disparity between the intellectual exploration and emotional force of the music and the weakness of the libretto.

The challenge of the Christian Gospel is considerable. For this reason, from the beginning it has been faced with various strategies of erasure or reinterpretation. That continues today in many different forms, especially as a secular culture wishes either to subdue or evade it, while at the same time wishing to colonize it for its extraordinary power. “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” is a good example of this, and it fails for roughly the same reasons as the gnostic myths themselves fail: they disguise their emptiness with attempts at esotericism, recycling and dressing up in gorgeous forms the weary nostrums and myths of the day. What is really shocking about the Gospel of Magdalene is not its rather strained and incoherent attempts to present “new” perspectives on the Christian narrative and its persons—a narrative that has its own majestic drama whether one believes in it or not. The shock lies rather in the libretto’s odd human banality, psychological superficiality and symbolic incoherence. For all the surrounding carapace of music, direction and design, “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” strangely trivializes the human, ignores the Divine and dodges every question of potential depth. There is one advantage: in presenting us with a mash-up of gnostic and New Testament texts filtered through a modern lens, it inadvertently shows us why the early church was certainly sane if not inspired to reject the gnostic nonsense.

Structurally, the first act is the weakest: the prologue and the five scenes that follow offer us a variety of ideas from contemporary concerns to ancient belief systems. The second act, although it has seven scenes, is more concise and almost coherent, largely because it relies on the structure of the powerful, traditional narrative of Jesus’ death and crucifixion. It fatally stumbles at the end in choosing to portray an apparition as the source of Mary’s mission rather than the resurrected Christ. There are various subplots and dramas that are meant to provide new human and psychological insight into Miriam and her tortured search for forgiveness: We learn that she thought of aborting her illegitimate child and struggles to forgive herself. (Why do contemporary writers like Adamo and Colm Toibin so lack the skill to grasp the human and graced depth of Mary?) Adamo’s gnostic Yeshua is someone who has the courage to prevent Mary Magdalene’s stoning for adultery, but is strangely disabled when mocked for his supposed illegitimacy. In addition he seems to contradict his own teaching about women and the kingdom—much to Peter’s dismay—after he comes to value Mary. But it remains rather cloudy why this Yeshua should risk crucifixion, especially after he has discovered true Sophia with Mary Magdalene.

Let me give two examples of the theological, intellectual and dramatic problems that lie at the heart of the libretto. The first concerns the apotheosis of Mary to Sophia. The opening scene of act one presents us with the idea of a narrative that was suppressed. According to the opera, it was not only the suppression of Mary Magdalene, her significance and greatness as a woman and disciple; Adamo wants us to accept that in the suppression of the female there is also repression of the body and sexuality, “that my body through which all life springs, is the source, the very source of sin.” This, of course, belongs more to latter Manichaeism Gnosticism than to the Christian Gospel. It is not clear which tradition Adamo intends to critique or revise. In any case, a major theme is that Yeshua needs to grow into completeness through his relationship with Mary and she through her relationship and intimacy with him. This “gnosis” is neither shocking nor revelatory even on its own terms. It certainly fails to completely grasp the dynamic nature and depth of Christ’s humanity that is so completely human precisely because he is also the Incarnate Son in the Christian tradition. Yet for all his desire to explore a passionate, vulnerable and human Yeshua the libretto lacks the human depth or psychological subtlety to suggest or sustain the picture Adamo wishes to construct. 

A core theme is the bodily, sexual and human restoration that comes thorough the recovery of a loving, respectful innocence in the intimacy which Mary and Yeshua find in each other. Yet at this very point Mary appears to metamorphose from woman to a chaste-bridal Sophia. So what is this wisdom or gnosis that the opera makes available to us? Has it not itself fallen into the trap of confusing redemption—which is the recovery of a full, dynamic, alive humanity—with idealization, compounding the very problem it sought to address? 

The second example turns on the claimed suppressed narrative of the body. The greatness of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament texts does not lie only in her fidelity to Jesus, even when the male disciples desert him, but in her witness to the risen Lord. No resurrection, no Mary Magdalene. Yet at this point, unlike the Gospel Magdalene, the opera’s courage fails. Adamo has Mary encounter an apparition who imparts a rather trivial story for her carry, “tell them of our dreams. Tell them of our mothers, tell them of our mistakes. Tell them. Tell them of forgiveness, tell them of the promises everybody breaks.” It is a sentiment hardly worth risking one’s life for. 

The decision not to explore the new world of the resurrection is a supreme failure of intellectual and artistic nerve masquerading as a radical alternative. It is not new. It undermines the figure of Mary and robs the opera of the chance to present us with a real question and challenge; it also makes it incoherent. Given the stress on the body’s repression in the prologue, how could Adamo miss the significance of the resurrection of the body? If the resurrection is about anything, it is surely about our bodies, and to have missed this point reduces the magnificence of Mary, her person and mission. It also diminishes the scandal that such a world-transforming reality was entrusted to women: Mary his mother and Magdalene his disciple.

Running throughout the opera is a haunting musical motif, “when you’re not afraid to lose something, then you’ll understand how to hold on to it. To hold on to it, open your hand.” It is a play upon the noli me tangere of John’s Gospel. Yet the opera itself seems afraid to take the risk. In the Johannine text, the noli me tangere is not a dismissal but liberation for mission: Mary is not a figure of the past but of the future. She witnesses to the triumph of the grace of Christ; she continues to call us and to unsettle our securities.

To grasp this is to grasp the true challenge of the Gospel that Mary possesses. The church understands this and continues to wait for art courageous and imaginative to catch up. The San Francisco Opera is courageous and Mark Adamo is a fine composer. But perhaps next time they might commission him to try the more radical libretto of the canonical texts?

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C Chase
5 years 3 months ago
I saw the opera with a friend last month in San Francisco. I found the licenses with Scripture and with the gnostic texts intriguing in their departure from convention/tradition. But what haunted me after the event was the reception of this educated and urbane audience, and the implications regarding missiology, ecumenical engagement, and relevance of a church not merely in the world - but of the world.

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