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Yeshua (Nathan Gunn), center, is heckled by three women as he preaches at the Temple of Capernaum, in a scene from San Francisco Opera's world premiere of Mark Adamo's "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," Sunday, June 16, 2013 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

Not that he hasn't occupied center stage for 2,000 years, but Jesus has never before starred in a bona fide opera as he does in composer Mark Adamo's "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene." This new work from San Francisco Opera aims to imagine the Greatest Back Story Ever Told -- was Mary actually the Messiah's wife and chief spiritual muse? -- then noodles it all away.

Blandness rules in "Gospel," which opened Wednesday at War Memorial Opera House. As a composer for voices, Adamo floats between two musical theater poles: Stephen Sondheim and Disney's Alan Menken. He isn't as cloying as the latter (though Adamo's melodies often verge on cloying), and, God knows, he lacks the razor sophistication and melodic invention of the former. Often championed as a leader of the New Tonality, Adamo here is a master of the nondescript.

The production offers some rewards, however, as it paddles toward the Resurrection. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who stars as Mary and makes her company debut here, has a voice like a full moon; it beautifies and illuminates, giving the listener something special to contemplate during this nearly three-hour ordeal. Soprano Maria Kanyova, as Miriam, (mother of Jesus, or "Yeshua" in the Hebrew), and tenor William Burden, as Peter (political rebel and opponent of Mary's subtler "Wisdom") are exceptionally expressive, wringing all they can from meager materials. In the vernacular, they "bring it."

And this brings us to baritone Nathan Gunn, as Yeshua. For all his mellifluous phrasing, his portrayal is wooden: no sparks or electricity, little complexity or power.


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Part of the fault lies with Adamo's libretto, which has many engaging rhymes but is so intent on The Back Story that it misses The Story: Jesus' world-changing message and charisma. Still, couldn't Gunn at least pretend to be caught up in the action -- or what there is of it? Directed by Kevin Newbury, this is a static production, unfolding in front of a single set: a Roman-walled archaeological site in Galilee, where Jesus and Mary Magdalene once walked.

Commissioned by San Francisco Opera, it is Adamo's third opera, following "Little Women" (from 1998, based on the Louisa May Alcott novel) and "Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess" (from 2005, based on Aristophanes). It is a labor of love for Adamo, who conducted six years of historical research and even footnotes his libretto.

He particularly explored the Gnostic Gospels, early Christian texts, many discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. They hint at a different Magdalene from the one encountered in the New Testament. Was she Jesus' lover? Wife? His most questing spiritual acolyte? An opponent of the rebel Peter?

Adamo's characters stand and sing about all of this. We hear the words, but rarely experience what they tell us. One example: Mary sings that she is "blinded" by Yeshua's kisses, but there is next to no sexual heat in this "Gospel."

Its wedding scene is endless, as is the first act, which chronicles the love story: 90 minutes. In the second act, Adamo gains some traction as the love affair ends and Jesus dies. "This is how I lose you," Magdalene's aria about the breakup, is lovely. One climbing phrase hints at "If Ever I Would Leave You" from "Camelot" -- which is a better tune, even if you're allergic to Robert Goulet.

Adamo excels in composing for the orchestra, conducted by Michael Christie. Here the music is filled with skittering and swiveling gestures, as if angling for truth. There are flares and explosions, the sparkle of shooting stars -- all deft representations of light, which this opera otherwise fails to throw on its subjects.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him at Twitter.com/richardscheinin.

'THE GOSPEL OF
MARY MAGDALENE'

San Francisco Opera; music and libretto by Mark Adamo

Through: July 7
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $22-$340; 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com. (Standing room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.)