WASHINGTON — The Washington National Opera (WNO) debuted its intriguing new Francesca Zambello-led production of Richard Strauss’ Salome this past Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. Like the company’s previous production, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, WNO’s Salome, starring famed soprano Deborah Voigt, was as notable for the high quality of its singing as it was for the astoundingly cheap look of its single, budget set.
A grisly favorite of most opera fans for over a century, Strauss’ 1905 Salome was based on and inspired by the decadent, erotic, and highly stylized drama penned in French by the notorious Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde. Strauss immediately grasped the operatic nature of Wilde’s play and turned it into a libretto himself, reshaping the material to suit his musical concept. The result is a 96-minute, one-act opera of fiery intensity climaxing in a memorably bloody finale.
Salome, both the opera and the play, draw upon the gruesome final days of John the Baptist –Jokanaan in the play and the opera—who was imprisoned by King Herod Antipas for loudly condemning the king’s marriage to his queen, Herodias.
According to tradition, King Herod, unnaturally attracted to Herodias’ daughter, Salome, promised her anything she wished in his kingdom should she perform an erotic dance for him. Salome complied, and then demanded the head of John the Baptist be delivered to her on a silver platter. The biblical version of this event indicates that Salome did this at the behest of her mother who despised the Baptist for his insults and wanted him dead. Both the play and the opera take things further, however, depicting a wanton Salome acting on her own, the result of her twisted desire to unite sexually with the prophet.
Strauss’ Salome broke new ground at the turn of the last century. With the Romantic movement entering what looked to be its final stage in the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, composers began to look in other directions for musical inspiration. Most notoriously, Schoenberg’s invention of the twelve-tone (“atonal”) row effectively abandoned western musical tradition. Its abrasive new sound cut classical music off, by and large, from its popular audience during most of the 20th century, although Schoenbergian techniques remain highly effective even today as background music in horror movies and thrillers.
Strauss took a different route away from the old Romanticism, uniting Wagner’s chromaticism with modernistic dissonances and a kind of “extended tonality.” The result was a rich and often unnerving new music that, while not exactly abandoning tonality, was less rooted in a specific tonal base.
Salome is an excellent example of this musical evolution. The opera conveys a romantic yet decadent mood while adding a cutting, unpleasantly tense edginess to the proceedings. Like Strauss’ later Der Rosenkavalier, the music in many ways embodies the swaying, decaying empires of Western Europe prior to their final collapse in the cascading disaster of World War I.
Geopolitical considerations aside, Strauss’ edgy approach to literature and current events resulted in a near-perfect miniature opera, short on running time but the emotional equal of many a grand, tragic work. Salome’s utterly scandalous subject matter includes a marriage among close relatives (taboo among most religions), strong implications of incest, and, of course, a healthy dose of necrophilia in the opera’s concluding scene. That’s still a heavy dose of trouble for modern audiences. We can just imagine how this went over early in our last century.
Nonetheless, sex and scandal won’t keep a work of art in front of the public for over a century. Strauss’ score to Salome is rich, colorful, musically innovative, and so interesting that one can grasp a new element, motif, or strain upon each successive hearing this opera. Not many works of art can make this claim.
An added bonus: the score’s dramatic vocal parts call for Wagnerian singers of substantial power and skill, making this opera one of the most electrifying of all vehicles for a truly great star like Deborah Voigt. She’s long been famous for the title role of Salome, and demonstrated precisely why on Thursday evening—her first-ever performance with WNO.
As in Strauss’ other over-the-top one-act opera, Elektra, Salome is a grueling showcase for a star soprano. Like Elektra, Salome is onstage—and singing—throughout the bulk of the opera. Singing the role requires incredible stamina, not to mention a mature voice that can leap up and over a large, percussion-heavy pit orchestra that’s frequently playing at full blast.
Thursday evening, save for an oddly-blocked scene or two, Deborah Voigt was more than a match for this opera’s test of strength. And yet, had she merely sung at full blast just to prove the point, hers would not have been the fine performance that it was. She was still able to depict Salome’s wildly shifting emotions with exquisite vocal shadings ranging from water-color pastels to heavily-saturated modernist hues.
She also proved fearless as an actress, abandoning any sense of regal propriety, fully indulging in Salome’s depravity, right down to that famous, final embrace of Jokanaan’s bloody, severed head.
Happily, the rest of the opera’s primary cast was also top-notch. Tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele was oddly engaging as a bipolar Herod, commanding his soldiers on one hand, while reduced to a sniveling suppliant when confronting his troubled step-daughter. Berkeley-Steele’s vocal output invariably matched the mood of the moment, almost as if two different singers were inhabiting the same corporeal body.
In the rather ungrateful role of the confused yet wicked Herodias, mezzo-soprano Dorris Soffel brilliantly portrayed a queen who’s inured to the perversities of her dysfunctional family. Yet at the same time, she attempts to maintain some dignity for herself and the court. Ms. Soffel’s crisp, regal delivery provided a welcome contrast to the chaos swirling around her. Her Herodias is, in the end, no better than the others in the court. But she has the sense, at least, to try to maintain appearances.
In the smaller role of Narraboth, whose ill-fated love for Salome drives him to suicide in the opera’s early going, tenor Sean Panikkar exhibited a fine, dramatic instrument that deserves wider play, perhaps in a future WNO production. His voice was so pleasing, so convincing, that it was sad to see him hauled off the stage so early in the game.
The best surprise of the evening was bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi. His wild-eyed, Jokanaan was the divine madman that you always imagined the Baptist to have been. Steely-hard, living in his own inflexible spiritual plane, Strauss’ Jokanaan—whom we first hear as a disembodied, amplified voice drifting up from the deep, dank pit in which he is imprisoned—proves to be the opera’s only genuinely moral character.
Jokanaan is a bit crazy, perhaps, by our lights. But he believes in moral absolutes, rights and wrongs, abstract concepts that never enter the minds of Herod’s amoral family. Jokanaan provides the opera with religious ballast. But he also serves as a secular symbol, a placeholder, a beacon of moral common sense not only in his own age but in Strauss’ corrupt 20th century world—a world that was about to end in abrupt and astonishing savagery at the outset of World War I. (Contemporary Washington DC might take heed of this message as well.)
Daniel Sumegi somehow managed to capture all of this, and more, in his magnetic performance Thursday evening. Veering from righteous indignation when hurling invectives at Herod’s court, to genuine compassion when he feels Salome is about to find the right path, Sumegi’s caveman Jokanaan is a force of nature, the catalyst that leads to the opera’s revolting final act.
Sumegi has a big, commanding voice and wields it with great skill here, transforming his character into someone much larger than life, someone who convinces you that he has really seen God. His powerful interactions with Deborah Voigt’s cunning Salome, both vocally and dramatically, become precisely the kind of magic that opera aficionados long to see and hear.
The WNO Orchestra, performing under the baton of Philippe Augin, the company’s new Music Director, seemed at the top of its game this week, performing Strauss’ immense, symphonic score with great passion and conviction. Given Maestro Augin’s impressive initial appearance with this ensemble during last year’s magnificent concert version of Götterdämmerung, it looks like WNO’s musical directions will be in good hands for, hopefully, years to come.
This production of Salome, alas, is another story. Francesca Zambello’s clear direction is generally quite good, although occasionally, she places her singers a little too far back on the stage, causing them to get obliterated by Strauss’ large orchestra. Also, the soldiers’ movements early in the opera seem somewhat aimless and purposeless.
More troubling, though, is the single set designed by Peter J. Davison. Aside from the impressively gloomy cistern located slightly off center stage—the temporary home of John the Baptist—the remainder of the set is a banquet table inside Herod’s royal palace.
Problem is, we don’t really get to see this room very well. It’s obscured by a massive, floor-to-ceiling, translucent plastic curtain, split at intervals to allow entrances and exits from Herod’s ongoing festivities. But it looks like a cheap, monstrously oversized shower curtain whose analog you might find in a rundown Motel 6 or in the picked over inventory of a Dollar General. Did they even have plastics, circa 29 A.D.? What in heaven’s name was Peter Davison thinking? Or is this yet another example of just how tight WNO’s budget is this year?
The curtain—which is never raised or pulled back—does reflect Mark McCullough’s lighting designs rather nicely. But the cheap look that it lends to this production is genuinely distracting. Even Anita Yavich’s colorful costuming and Yael Levitin’s clever choreography in Salome’s signature “Dance of the Seven Veils” can’t keep you from staring at that plastic curtain again and again and again.
Fortunately, with a little willpower and suspension of disbelief, this scenic misplay can be ignored by those less irritable than this reviewer. The singing and the orchestral playing in this production are decidedly above average. And definitive performances by Deborah Voigt and Daniel Sumegi put this Salome in the big leagues, music wise.
On the other hand, it’s a shame when good-to-great productions like this fall’s Un ballo and, now, Salome, are undercut by sets that wouldn’t make the cut in many area high schools’ performing arts departments. We seriously hope that WNO can soon make or conclude the kind of hard decisions that will enable it to gain a stronger financial footing in the years ahead.
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