A kind of "biblical CNN" opera, Mark Adamo's "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" unintentionally channels Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's 1971 "Jesus Christ Superstar."
The San Francisco Opera-commissioned work opened Wednesday at the War Memorial Opera Building, where a near-capacity audience gave the three-hour work a warm reception.
David Korins' dramatic set is split horizontally between a modern-day chorus on the hilltop of an archaeological dig in the Holy Land and the stage below, occupied by people of first-century Galilee.
Adamo's text — based on both canonical and Gnostic gospels — traces the lives of Jesus and Mary during the period leading up to the Crucifixion.
The similarity to "Superstar" is in the torrent of cutesy pop psychology ("to have it, let it go") and deliberate anachronisms.
The difference is in the seriousness of Adamo's exploration of opposing views between traditional, canonic gospels and the contemporary discoveries of Gnostic gospels, which contradict a great deal in the New Testament.
As in Dan Brown's 2003 "The Da Vinci Code," Mary Magdalene is in focus throughout Adamo's 86-page, single-spaced libretto (with 120 footnotes).
The opera presents Mary as a wise, affluent woman, smeared by the early Church but intended by Jesus to lead the Church. In the opera's last scene, he places his crown of thorns on her head.
With her soaring and warm voice, crystalline diction and regal yet endearing presence, Sasha Cooke as Mary is the glory of the production. Her character is matched against the machinations and misogyny of Simon Peter (brilliant tenor William Burden).
Called by his Aramaic name of Yeshua, the Nazarene (Nathan Gunn in underpowered performance in a strangely understated role) is caught between Mary, whom he marries and calls "my Wisdom," and Peter, who cannot abide by the thought of women in anything but subservient roles.
After his first appearance, rescuing Mary from being stoned, Yeshua hesitates, vacillates, goes back and forth between Mary's "love is the answer" philosophy and Peter's instigation to do what eventually leads to his fate.
Adamo's pleasant and enjoyable but sometimes choppy music — which better fits his earlier, smaller-scale "Little Women" — doesn't sustain such a large, ambitious work. With a few exceptions, such as the Crucifixion scene, it has the illustrative sounds of a film score.
Bringing the best out of the score, debuting conductor Michael Christie does impressive work in the pit. Ian Robertson's hardworking chorus excels and Kevin Newbury's direction keeps the action moving, although there are some awkward moments.
As Miriam, who offers a fascinating, but abruptly ended, side story of the Virgin, Maria Kanyova is outstanding, as are James Creswell as Pharisee and Adler Fellows Marina Harris as Tamar and Hadleigh Adams as Simon.REVIEW
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
Presented by the San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. June 25, June 28 and July 5, 7:30 p.m. July 2, 2 p.m. July 7
Tickets: $22 to $340
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com