Don’t Lose Your Head, John!
While Elektra was without hesitation Richard Strauss’ most concentrated effort in a theatrical vein, his fame, as it were, in the operatic realm rested on his previous opera, Salome.
As a young musician, Strauss gave the world a series of tone poems that quite literally expanded the range and repertoire for orchestral works: Aus Italien, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also Sprach Zarathustra (aka the theme to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — see the following link to my review of this sci-fi classic: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/2001-a-space-odyssey-1968-man-losing-his-humanity/), Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) — all written before Salome’s 1905 debut in the decade between 1888 and 1898.
There was also Sinfonia Domestica, a blissful elegy to middle-class married life, composed in 1903 and immediately preceding the strident Salome. Twelve years later, in 1915, as war erupted all around Europe and along the Turkish frontier, Strauss gave his public An Alpine Symphony, a musical depiction in 22 individual episodes of a hike up the hills (alive with danger if not music), which had taken place years earlier when the composer was a strapping young lad. He made note at the time of possible sketches and themes, but was never able to complete the project until word came in May 1911 that his longtime ally and rival, Gustav Mahler, had passed away.
It was so like the composer to have used the impetus of a friend’s death to recall a long-ago trek in which he and a hearty band of mountain climbers go up and down the Alpine trail to face frightful weather conditions that culminated in a picturesque, Technicolor sunset. Um, right….
The exuberance and daring of youth was not wasted on the budding talent. Having met Hugo von Hofmannsthal circa 1900, Strauss went about turning Oscar Wilde’s scandalous French-language play Salomé into a viable operatic vehicle. He would follow a pattern of taking and using a poet’s words verbatim. Without benefit of editing or trimming, he would set the text whole-scale to his music. This would account for some of Strauss’ unrelieved wordiness in such oeuvres as Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Arabella (all written to Hofmannsthal’s texts). He did base his Salome, however, on a German translation provided by poet and author Hedwig Lachmann (who was also responsible for translating Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, into German).
To be fair, Strauss abridged much of Wilde’s verbal imagery (mostly to speed up the narrative) by lacing his opera with music of a most peculiar brand of exoticism and bitonality (peculiar, mind you, for turn-of-the-century tastes). Two years after the Dresden premiere, Strauss arranged his score for a French version of Salome which made the rounds of France and other locales. Some musicologists insist that the Gallic language fit the sensual nature of the piece better than the guttural Deutsch. I happen to believe the opposite: that the German text emphasized greater “shock” value, if that’s what it required, in order to pull the work off.
Dance to the Music
No matter which language was employed, the title character remains one of the most elusive and challenging to cast of any in the standard repertory. As in his next project, Elektra (equally ponderous to cast), Salome is onstage throughout, either singing or reacting to what is being sung from the moment she struts forth. The performer taking up this role must display the physical attributes and over-eager impetuousness of a sixteen-year-old, yet sing with the voice of an Isolde so as to penetrate the thick orchestration.
Decadence, eroticism, and sacrilegious attraction to parts of the human anatomy, known as “objectification” in psychosexual terms, are essential elements in the overall plot and stifling ambience that pervade both the opera and the play. French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who had a profound influence on the so-called “decadent” movement of the late nineteenth-century (of which Wilde was a part), described Salome as “the symbolic incarnation of undying lust … the accursed beauty exalted above all beauties by the catalepsy that hardens her flesh and steels her muscles, the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like the Helen of ancient myth, everything she touches.”
In addition to this overripe explanation, the singer must be a convincing actress as well as a lithe dancer. In many, if not most, productions the soprano is replaced by a member of the corps de ballet for the exhausting “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Not at the Met, though. This thumpety-thump, bump-and-grind episode seems like something straight out of vaudeville burlesque. A concert hall favorite for many generations, it is highly anticipated by audiences.
Mahler had discussions with Strauss about where in the opera the dance should be placed. Nevertheless, it was Strauss’ intention to “isolate the piece in all its enigmatic grandiosity and psychological depth.” To wit, he located the number at the point where Herod gazes in lust at the voluptuous figure of the princess Salome. She, in turn, manipulates the lascivious Tetrarch of Galilee into granting her wish of placing John the Baptist’s severed head (he is called by his Hebrew name, Jokanaan) on a silver platter. So be it!
The Metropolitan Opera’s production, directed by Jürgen Flimm, with sets and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto and choreography by Doug Varone, dates from 2004. Another of those “modern” stagings (ha-ha, with “Danish” modern furniture?), the set is divided into two separate halves, part of which resembles a swanky bar and cocktail lounge that spirals off into a staircase above and below the stage; the other is a somewhat stylized depiction of a Middle Eastern desert where Jokanaan’s cistern lies as he hurls his imprecations at Herod, his wife Herodias and their tipsy court. The cistern resembles a makeshift lift (in the old British tradition of “lifts”) where the Baptist preacher is raised and lowered. Access to this portion of the set is made by walking across a plank — treacherous footing, it’s true, but effective nonetheless.
The portly King Herod, as portrayed here by the phenomenally accomplished German tenor Gerhard Siegel (Mime in the Met’s Ring cycle production of Siegfried), was dressed up to resemble comic Zero Mostel in a top hat and pink flowered shawl. Siegel spat his words out with bite and relish. From his initial utterances (“Wo ist Salome? Wo ist die Prinzessin?” – “Where is Salome? Where is the Princess?”), to his pained and drawn out cry at the end of “Man töte dieses Weib!” (“Kill that woman!”), Siegel took the vocal and acting honors for his skillful realization of the depraved and lustful Tetrarch.
Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Herodias, Salome’s mother, had a beautiful voice (too beautiful for such an iniquitous creature), but she stayed within the role’s confines. Possessor of a gorgeous instrument and pliant, ardent tone, debuting tenor Kang Wang’s voice rang out vibrantly as the smitten young Captain Narraboth. “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute abend,” with its exposed high note, held no terrors for the native from China, who grew up in Australia. Another debuting artist, bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee, lent solid heft to the First Soldier’s lines. He was seconded by veteran bass Richard Bernstein, along with a sympathetic Page by the sprightly mezzo Carolyn Sproule.
As Jokanaan, or John the Baptist (Strauss expunged all mention of his Biblical title), baritone Željko Lučić seemed like an odd, left-field choice for this assignment. I have not been the most enthusiastic supporter of the Serbian-born singer, but I admired his past efforts as Rigoletto and Macbeth, to say nothing of his recent Iago. As an interpreter of Verdi, Lučić may be limited in expression but his choice of roles always makes sense from an interpreter’s point of view. He has the artistry and the range to carry them through.
Here, however, I felt his strong tones were nothing more than a blob of amorphous sound, with little to no differentiation between notes. It came at you unleashed, as one solid, massive force — impressive but lacking in the finer details. The words were often opaque and without form. His departing curse at the debauched princess’ entreaties to kiss his mouth, “Du bist verflucht,” fell flat when it should have shaken the rafters. Željko may have been having an off-day (this was a Saturday matinee), since many of the subsequent reviews praised his performance, so I will reserve judgment until proven otherwise.
Sex in the City
Substituting for the ailing Catherine Naglestad, the surprise performer of the afternoon was none other than soprano Patricia Racette. Labeled a “veteran” by some reviewers (she has been a Met mainstay for over a quarter century) Racette would be filling some pretty hefty shoes. After all, the original Salome when this production was new, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, was much slimmer of build, blonde and blue-eyed, and the possessor of an uniquely Nordic temperament (with innate acting skills to match). Mattila’s striptease version of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she unveiled herself in the raw for a few precious moments of titillation, was censored in theaters and on public television when the Live in HD series broadcast the 2008 revival (it was subsequently released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc in 2011). The Met got cold feet where nudity was concerned (although no sex acts were present in Flimm’s gaudy and bawdy roadshow).
What the buxom 50+-year-old Racette brought was a commanding upper voice that gained strength as the opera progressed, albeit with less focus and pitch, but with limitless reserves and staying power. Racette easily rode the orchestral crests in the long closing scene where Salome, in possession of Jokanaan’s severed head, fondles and kisses its lips. She bared her breasts (Racette prides herself on her authenticity as a person and as a performer) and even unveiled herself in the altogether — all within the parameters of depicting the reckless princess’ baseness and moral abandon.
“There’s nothing quite as fun and interesting to portray onstage as a really poorly behaved person,” she told Los Angeles Times reporter Catherine Womack. “And Salome is that, if nothing else. This, for me, is truly a theatrical feast.”
On the debit side, Racette’s lowest notes were lost in the upper reaches of the Met’s auditorium. Still, she was ably partnered by the young German conductor Johannes Debus (another debutant), who kept a tight rein on the Met Opera Orchestra, never allowing the superior forces at his beck and call to overwhelm the artist. A few stray notes and wobbly flutters aside, this was a major comeback for a singer whose obvious pluses outweighed the relatively few minuses.
Well done, Patricia! And keep up the great work. Your authenticity is sorely needed (and missed!).
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes