The lines we have recovered from the so-called Gnostic texts amplify the sense of Peter as a hothead who misses the point. In the Pistis Sophia, Mary Magdalene confesses to Jesus that she is afraid of him for he has threatened her and Peter "hateth her sex". The disciple Levi confronts Peter, accusing him of by saying, "a constant inclination and (you) are always ready to give in to it". In his moment of greatest misogyny, Peter implores Jesus to "Make Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of the life". A number of feminists, Biblical scholars and theologians have underscored the enormous tensions between early Christian communities which valued women in roles of spiritual authority (many tracing their lineage to Mary Magdalene) and those who did not (pre-eminently the followers of Peter), and the results of this conflict are still being painfully played out today. (For a thoroughly researched historical account of this topic, see Ann Graham Brock's masterful book Mary Magdalene, First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority).
So in an opera that has an interest in in reclaiming Mary Magdalene's rightful place as a figure of spiritual authority and bringing her to the center of the Christian story, I was concerned that Peter would be flattened, stripped of his own humanity and dignity and be reduced to a cartoon style villain. Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. In Mark Adamo's opera, Peter is a passionate, conflicted disciple. Yes, he inclined to advocate violence. Yes, his jealousy blinds him to Mary's worth and wisdom. Yes, he utters words which to our 21st century ears can only sound ignorant and misogynistic. But he is also supremely dedicated ("No one else has been as true", Jesus says to him, " My breath belongs to you, " Peter sings to his teacher). It is his burning quest for social justice (not personal power) that drive him to advocate a course of action that has tragic consequences. And in a story in which every single character is fallible and searching, Peter comes across as the most powerfully poignant and passionate of all.
At the end of Act I, Peter is confronted with the choice to leave Jesus or kneel to Mary. The orchestra suspends its music as the brilliantly riveting tenor William Burden writhes with the dilemma, ultimately choking out each word as he drops to his knees in an act that goes against everything he believe in. In Act II, Peter's utter anguish as he realizes what he has done in abandoning Jesus is gut wrenching. The stage is bathed in blood red floodlights, while a single white spotlight pinpoints Peter, huddled rocking and crumpled to his knees, singing "How many times will I remember this? Seven times seven? How many times will it destroy me? Seven times seven". Burden's portrayal of Peter's remorse is harrowing and haunting. May we never feel such shame and anguish.
The most surprising element for me of Mark Adamo's opera is that he has given us a character I least expected: a Peter who touches my heart. If this were the Ring Cycle, I would want the next two operas to focus on the journeys of the two most compelling figures- the anguished Peter as he heads towards Rome, and the mythical Magdalene as she sets sail on a rudderless boat to teach and preach to all of Gaul.