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Janice Watson as Salome (Photo: Ken Howard, © 2006)
24 Jul 2006

SHORT ON SALOME

Richard Strauss’ 1905 neurotic shocker Salome has long been a favorite Santa Fe Opera repertory piece, having enjoyed ten productions over the years.

It was the special province of the opera company’s late founder, John Crosby, who conducted Santa Fe’s first Salome in 1962 and led it as late as 1998, not long before his death. Now, some eight years later, the Strauss opera is back for the Festival’s 50th Anniversary season, in a presentation that makes one wonder why the effort was made. With one important exception, this year’s Salome is a surprisingly pedestrian affair.

Happily, a brilliant orchestral performance was achieved by the American conductor John Fiore, currently chief conductor at Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Dusseldof . Fiore led the best realization of the Strauss score I have ever heard at Santa Fe, and for the most part elsewhere, one of remarkable transparency, detail and color -- lacking only a final thrust of energy and excitement to find the real magic of Strauss’s score, a limitation imposed by a noticeably compromised cast.

Fiore, once a musical wunderkind (indeed, he was coaching singers in Wagner’s Ring Cycle at age 14 at Seattle Opera where his father was chorus master), is now a portly, somewhat Europeanized world-class conductor. We heard a highly competent orchestra, whose musicians obviously thrive on the strong direction they are now receiving at Santa Fe under the guidance of the company’s Music Director, Alan Gilbert. Fiore brought out the best of this group, playing the complex German music with a strong and secure hand, and balance that allowed Strauss to flow naturally and idiomatically.

If only the singers had been as good! Any Salome rises or falls on the success of its title soprano, in this case the English Strauss specialist Janice Watson. This artist has a good history at Santa Fe, where in 1996 she sang a brilliant Daphne, her voice well remembered for its thrust and thrilling high range. She sang a splendid Arabella a year later and was well regarded for Mozart performances.

Saturday night’s Salome was Watson’s debut in the role and it disappointed on all counts. Her acting was studied rather than spontaneous and it did not work; yes, the depraved teenager’s pouts and petulances were in place -- applied like makeup. Watson undertook her own Dance of the Seven Veils, which included hand-feeding grapes to King Herod in lieu of any better ideas, a great deal of rolling about on the grid covering Jokanaan’s cistern (so he could have a peek or two in case he changed his mind?). By the removal of the seventh veil it was all a faintly embarrassing non-event. The show could have been redeemed, of course, by a strong vocal performance, which was not forthcoming. Watson’s voice seems to have diminished and lost range and quality; her breathing was short and interrupted the vocal line, an uncomfortable situation at best. Hers was an odd piece of casting, especially since it has been known for some time, and was heard in Mozart performances last year at the Metropolitan Opera, that Watson was having problems.

Greer Grimsley’s bass has seen many Wagnerian nights over the years since he was last on the Santa Fe stage, and his voice is now rough and monochromatic; I found his Jokanaan’s religious pronouncements merely tiresome shouting and lacking in effect. We’ll not go into his costume or wig.

Alas, I am duty bound to report octogenarian Swedish tenor Ragnar Ulfung, who once owned the role of Herod, now can barely visit it. He was said to be hampered by an injured leg, but Ulfung’s singing was seriously inadequate. His limitations, along with those of Watson, undermined the show. The English contralto Anne-Marie Owens, the Whore of Babylon, Herodias , managed to muster plentiful volume but not much else of interest. Dimitri Pittes possessed a strong cutting tenor as Narraboth .

I wish he had enjoyed more becoming costumes in a production that was in every way conventional and routine. It played out on a large raked disc, slightly elevated above the stage, with Jokanaan’s cistern in the center – a thrice familiar but useful Salome concept. Duane Schuler’s lighting, again, was unatmospheric and almost surgical. We hope for better days for Salome, especially since Santa Fe Opera has a conductor on board who can do justice to Richard Strauss’s masterful scores.

(c) 2006 J. A. VAN SANT
Santa Fe, New Mexico

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