09 Nov 2009

Salome in San Francisco

If Herbert von Karajan conducted Madama Butterfly and Maria Callas sang Isolde it follows that Nicola Luisotti should conduct Salome.

And that is exactly what he did at San Francisco Opera just now where he is the incoming music director, and therefore can conduct what he pleases. No reduced orchestration for this maestro, the ninety-one players stuffed into the War Memorial pit made a mighty sound, a mighty opulent one.

Mo. Luisotti sought the sonic richness of this early Strauss score rather than its burgeoning sexuality and exploding nervousness. The psychological penetration that is Strauss’ discovery in Salome may not yet have become the orchestral maelstrom that bares Elektra’s tortured soul, nonetheless Strauss is dealing with a pantheon of unstable personalities who enact a very sexual, personal and finally very ugly story. Strauss obliges with music that is sometimes sensual and sometimes ugly, but always personal — after all it marks a difficult passage and consequent loss of innocence. Mo. Luisotti opted to make it all beautiful.

It is an unabashedly lush score, as Mo. Luisotti helped us discover as never before. He caressed its musical lines that evoked the opera’s evening setting, the rising moon and the overwhelming grandeur and power of the word of God. His lions roared and his dogs barked and Herodias raged. But Luisotti did not discover the delicate sensuousness with which Strauss enveloped Salome, nor the desperate lust and self doubt that tortured Herod, or the sense of impending doom that hangs on every word of the text.

Luisotti version of Strauss’ first great opera was supported by the production imported from the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the stage a vista (open to view) when we entered the auditorium, the soldiers, Jews, Nazarenes, were milling around as they did the entire evening, making Salome’s sexual awakening a public spectacle rather than a personal drama. But these onlookers did not seem to know quite what to do or think as they stood around. We were kept waiting for them to react but they never did.

One of several daunting challenges facing a Salome stage director is the extended length of its dance of seven veils. The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production sought to solve this problem by engaging a choreographer, Se├ín Curran, to stage the opera. His solution was to impose an unrelenting formalized ritual, ten minutes of abstract choreography whose sensuality was limited to the flowing geometry of five or six squares of silk pulled through the air by a pair of eunuchs. The final shock of Strauss’ dance was eviscerated by completely covering Salome with silk veils so that, as we found out, she could make a quick change into a gold, vaguely Klimpt-essque gown for her orgy with John the Baptist’s severed head.

The setting too, by Bruno Schwengl, was unrelentingly geometric, a hard edge rectangular box disappearing into an exaggerated one point perspective that the supertitles called a vault and the libretto calls a cistern, but in this production it was really the most private part of the female anatomy, with an opening that expanded and contracted just like the real thing (honest to God). Gratuitously symbolic except that when the executioner entered it and Luisotti’s pit made its super exaggerated slicing noises the effect was a virtual hymenectomy. It was flat out gross.

But John the Baptist was not really inside the vault. When he was to have been heard from the cistern/vault he was actually off-stage down left singing through a sousaphone bell. His voice was weirdly loud over there on the side, very far away from where it was supposed to be (upstage center), and could have been had modern electronic technology been allowed to do its magic.

There were some fine performances on October 21 (the second one), particularly Nadia Michael as Salome, certainly one of the more resplendent of our current Salomes, her youthful figure able to embody a vocally well drawn character, with reserves of gorgeous tone sufficient to soar above the massive Strauss orchestral climaxes. We may miss the neurotic tinges awarded this complex role by Anna Silja and Maria Ewing, and the uncanny histrionics perpetrated by Leonie Rysanek (all former San Francisco Opera Salomes) but we did profit from Mme. Michael’s more even temperament as she did her best, a good trouper, to go along with this hapless production.

Reportedly in the fourth of the six performances her stamina waned, and she then bowed out of the fifth performance. Molly Fillmore was brought in at the very last moment from Arizona Opera where she is rehearsing the role (according to SFO general director David Gockley’s front of curtain announcement). While those of us there that evening must be grateful to Mme. Fillmore for the obvious heroics necessary to get through the performance, we can question San Francisco Opera’s lack of an adequate cover in what were foreseen circumstances.

Greer Grimsley gave his brief on-stage performance as Jokanaan splendidly, blinded by light delivering his confrontation with Salome with genuine fervor and horror, his curse ringing in our ears. Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura gave a fully sung, lurid account of Herodias that was intense and chilling, as it should be and so rarely is.

British tenor Kim Begley is not a big enough performer to bring Herod as horridly alive as he should be. One remembers Mr. Begley as a fine, sympathetic Narraboth, this role in this production taken by Garret Sorenson who made no effect in what can be a most affecting role. Perhaps both Mr. Begley and Mr. Sorenson were betrayed by the conducting and production, thus exonerating them from blame for their pale performances.

With staging entrusted to a choreographer there was much smooth movement. Overall the effect was in fact choreography rather than staging, except in the complex ensemble scenes when staging reverted to textbook procedures.

Michael Milenski

[Click here for additional production information and photo gallery.]