Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I Don't Know How to Love Him.*

Back in 2006, I saw Mark Adamo's Lysistrata at NYCO. The cast was first-class (Chad Shelton, Emily Pulley, and Victoria Livengood in three of the leads), the libretto dramatic and wryly funny, the score beautiful and at times catchy. So I had high hopes for the composer's third opera, which I looked forward to greatly, and man, am I ever disappointed, as you can tell from my review. I will here note that I have exchanged friendly email with Mark over the years since 2006, and you bet I was sorry to be writing a negative review of Gospel.

Mary Magdalene has a whole raft of problems, only some of which I called out in my review. I was surprised to see that I was more or less alone in calling out the set and the framing device as issues for the opera - of course, everybody else had space and time constraints too, and we all have to write about what we think is important. (Since I started this draft, John Marcher has also called out the framing device as a problem.)

A week before the premiere, SFO invited reviewers in for a press event, and a very nice one it was. Kip Cranna, always the most eloquent and intelligent of lecturers, interviewed the composer and director about the opera and how it took shape. Not that Mark Adamo really needs an interviewer; he is extremely smart, knowledgable, and funny, and appears to have all the details of everything he has ever read right at his fingertips. Okay, he has also been talking about this opera for a few years now, and I doubt there were big surprises in any of Kip's questions. (For that matter, there might not have been any surprises.)

That's where I first heard about the framing device. I was sitting about eight feet from where the interview was taking place, and somehow I was able to keep from just putting my head in my hands. I should look at my notes and see what I wrote. I kinda think it was something like "Oh, shit."

Because....I've seen this sort of thing before. "Oh, the opera takes place in the past! Let's have an archeological framing device!" Okay, really, I do know that the decision-making process was not that facile for Mary Magdalene. But I was surprised that this particular idea made it through the vetting process.

It didn't work for Berkeley Opera's Otello, which opened with archeologists discovering a tomb on Cyprus, though the boxes representing the tomb did clutter up the stage. It didn't work for Festival Opera's otherwise excellent Aida, where a grandstand of Victorians watched the ghosts of the characters (I guess....) singing and acting out the story. These were both before David Gockley's tenure in SF, and I have no idea which of his spies colleagues at SFO saw those productions, if any. And compared to Mary Magdalene, those were low-budget productions indeed.

Now, obviously, writing a libretto that incorporates a framing device is different from making up a framing device for a 19th century opera. But still: I found the mixture of ancient and modern clothing, modern scaffolding and ancient ruins, intensely distracting. The Greek chorus effect, which Adamo discussed at the press event, didn't work so well either, because it's a distraction when the chorus sings a citation! It's not part of the main story! You can make a Greek chorus work in an opera; Stravinsky managed it very well, thank you, in Oedipus Rex. But that was a Greek tragedy, and, well, Igor Stravinsky.

The framing device also sets up a plot line that doesn't get any resolution at the end of the opera. We have the Seekers, and they're unhappy with modern Christianity (I can't say I blame them), and after witnessing Mary and Yeshua's meeting and wedding, and his death and resurrection.....we get nothing from them. Their story is not resolved. How does their faith change? How do their beliefs change? What is the impact on their lives?

Well, at that point, the opera has been going for quite a long time; the first act is 90 minutes long, the second almost an hour. There is a big dramatic scene with the crucifixion - with the best music in the opera - followed by the final Mary-Yeshua scene. You'd really break the mood by putting in a few minutes of conversation to round out the Seekers' story line. So this is not going to get resolved.

Anyone who's been reading this blog for a few years knows I think it's not such a good idea for performers to read reviews unmediated. It's definitely not a good idea to respond publicly to one's reviews. If you're a composer who has just spent five or six years working on a new opera, well, you're going to read the reviews. While it's always nice to publicly thank everybody who worked so hard to put your opera on stage, I would be talking with my publicist before saying anything publicly about the reviews or reviewers.

Mark isn't taking advice from me, however, and has posted some thoughts on his own blog. He's also not going to be revising the opera to suit my particular tastes. But he raises a few issues that I was planning to discuss anyway.

He complains that reviewers found the opera either muddled and overly complex or too simplistic. Well, let's work that out, because both are correct. At the macro level, there are too many plot strands going on, with none of them fully worked out. I called out several in my review, and I'll add another one or two:
  • Mary-Yeshua romance
  • Transformation of Yeshua's philosophy because of Mary
  • Yeshua and Christianity as political threats to Roman rule
  • Conflict between Mary and Peter
  • Peter's love for Yeshua
  • Yeshua's relationship with his mother
  • The Seekers and their modern-day discontents
That's enough plot for a Trollope-length novel of, say, 750 pages. If you're writing an opera and you have less than three hours of stage time, you have to make some decisions about what to focus on. Mary Magdalene tries to do it all, and fails all around. Maybe one of the above plot lines gets its due, that of Yeshua's relationship with his mother, thanks to Miriam's aria and her comments to Mary.

It's at the line level that the libretto is overly simplistic and sometimes cliched. Take this:
This I know:
You bring me to life.
Radiant man, answered pray’r,
You bring me to life:
Back to life!
The nights I wasted, searching,
Asking watchmen in the square:
“Have you seen him? Have you seen the one I love?”
That's Mary, singing about the man she's in bed with at the start of the ancient part of the opera. After Yeshua rescues her from a pair of Roman policemen, he sings this:
Are you ashamed? You should be.
But no one’s here to shame you.
Are you to blame? You could be.
But no one’s left, no one’s here to blame you.
Breathe: close your eyes.
Later you’ll apologize.
But for now, let the moment go by.
They’re gone. Look, it’s dawn.
See the flames light the sky?
They can’t claim you.
They won’t blame you.
Nor will I.
That's a partial paraphrase of something the historical Jesus supposedly said to Mary, but oh so clunky! I cringed, really, when I read this in the libretto and heard it sung a couple of days later. I mean, at the press event, Mark said he didn't want any archaicisms, which is perfectly fine. But "Breathe, close your eyes/Later you'll apologize" is an anachronism in the opposite direction. It sounds like something a guru or shrink might say today, or any time since the 1960s.

The combination of the overly complex plot and the overly simple lines given to the characters also mean that the actual philosophy of the Gnostics and Gnostic Christianity simply doesn't get its due. Not that I think an opera is the ideal place for pilpul,** but a complicated and subtle philosophy gets reduced to New Age bromides about loving each other and "look at what we tried to do." Well, WHAT EXACTLY did you try to do? It's never spelled out in complex terms.

And as far as archaicisms go.....well, there are ways to elevate the tone of what you're writing without them. I am afraid that the libretto completely misses on this point, and based on something Mark said at the press event, it was deliberate. He talked about a point in writing the libretto where he was running into problems trying to write words to be spoken by Yeshua, Mary, Miriam, and he did a big search-and-replace and gave the first three different names. He made a joke about not being able to find an equivalent of Peter, a problem I could have solved for him: one of the meanings of the Hebrew name Evan is "rock."

Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe it would have been good to be a little overawed when putting words into the mouths of Biblical characters without irony or satire or comedy.

Back when Andrew Porter was writing his singing translation of Wagner's Ring, he was given the excellent advice that "the gods shouldn't talk like the people next door." Well, if you're writing about a man who became a god, you can't give him cliches and New Age nonsense to sing. You need to give him something at least a little elevated. You need to show that this is a guy whose teachings inspired deep devotion from his disciples and whose teachings became the basis of a major religion. He isn't just a guy on the street. He had to have been something special, but you can't tell from the libretto of Mary Magdalene or from the music written for Yeshua.

As for the footnotes, nobody thinks they're a matter of vanity and everybody thinks it's fine to do a lot of research. But in the end, all the scholarly apparatus - the direct quotations and allusions to the gnostic and canonical gospels - just isn't what makes a good libretto. Footnoting your libretto as heavily as Mark did this one - well, it looks defensive. It looks as though you are worried about what people might say about your libretto. And if the libretto isn't eloquent and able to stand on its own, no amount of scholarly scaffolding will make it a good libretto.

I'll put it another way: the footnotes serve to emphasis the gap between the libretto's ambitions and its actual success. The many direct quotations from and paraphrases of older texts make the reader wonder why Mark didn't just make up his own text completely from scratch.

As for the music....well, over at A Beast in a Jungle, John Marcher is a whole lot more impressed than I was. If this opera had really great Big Tunes, I wouldn't mind, but I don't believe any of the melodies rises above the mediocre. None of them approach the greatness of Kern, Porter, Gershwin, Lesser, Sondheim or their great contemporaries. I would like to get the recurrent "Nazarene/Magdalene" line out of my head. And, uh, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," whose lyrics might as well have come from this show, has a more memorable tune than anything in Mary Magdalene.

* NB: I started working on this posting more than two weeks ago. It is pure coincidence that Patrick used the same post title.

** Unless your name is Richard Wagner, who gets mighty deep into the philosophy during Act II of Tristan. He gets away with this because of the unearthly beauty of the music.


Anonymous said...

So when a serious opera gets compared to Lloyd Webber, and not to its favor, either - is that the kiss of death?

Lisa Hirsch said...

The kiss of death is the quality of the work itself, in this case.

Henry Holland said...

I've loved the original Jesus Christ Superstar recording since my sister got a copy in 1970. A bunch of excellent British rock singers, great basslines and some really stellar melodies, including the ones he ripped off (i.e. part of The Firebird for "Talk to me Jesus Christ/You have been brought here"). Love Tim Rice's lyrics too.

By my count, that's four duds in a row for Gockley: Appomattox, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Heart of a Soldier and Mary Magdalene. Still to come: Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne, which I'm not expecting much of.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I mostly liked Appomattox, but you have to like Philip Glass Philip Glass Philip Glass. Not sure what I'd think if I saw it again.

John Marcher said...


Appomattox and Mary Magdalene can hardly be considered duds. I wasn't interested in The Bonesetter's Daughter because it seemed like little more than pandering to the large Chinese audience in SF (the Arshak of the Gockley era), so I skipped it, and Heart of a Soldier was indeed terrible. So at worst that's only two and all things considered, that's not a bad average. Also, don't forget Gockley's hand in Moby Dick, which is certainly no dud (those who know me will certainly find it shocking I seem to be in Gockley's corner all of a sudden, but I'll give the man his due when he's earned it, and he has).

My question for you is how many of them have you actually seen?

I was expecting terrible things from Il Postino and was quite surprised by good it was, so who knows what will happen with Dolores Claiborne? The results won't be known until it hits the stage of the War Memorial.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Gockley turned down Bonesetter when he was at Houston. I think I would characterize his taking it in SF more as "We can sell tickets to this in SF" rather than pandering. It was crap, in any event.

I have mixed feelings about Moby-Dick but I liked it a whole lot more than Mary M.

John Marcher said...

Re Bonesetter, that's a fair enough assessment :)

Re Moby Dick, I liked it, and I wouldn't want to compare it to Mary, but my point is that regardless of that, it's not a did and Gockley had a major role in bringing it to the stage.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm guessing you meant "dud." :) Yeah, I liked it more than not, thought a lot of the music very beautiful and effective, and wouldn't mind seeing it again. But they should fix the fact that you can't tell that M-D sinks the Pequod, a seemingly unbelievable problem.

John Marcher said...

Yes- that's what I get for submitting a comment on my phone. What should get "fixed" in operas would be a great post/topic for discussion, don't you think? Let's begin with Norma, shall we? Preposterous- the most ridiculous plot ever, but that hasn't stopped it from being considered a classic.

Lisa Hirsch said...

"I think this plot is unbelievable, so make it believable" is different from "Something happens but the stage action doesn't make clear what." Anyway, Felice Romani isn't around to fix the Norma libretto for you!