Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the Proms

For its annual visit to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, Glyndebourne brought its new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, an opera which premiered 200 years ago.

Béatrice and Bénédict at Glyndebourne

‘A caprice written with the point of a needle’: so Berlioz described his opera Béatrice and Bénédict, which pares down Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to its comic quintessence, shorn of the sub-plots, destroyed reputations and near-bloodshed of Shakespeare’s original.

Der fliegende Holländer, Bavarian State Opera

‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’ It is, perhaps, a line quoted too often; yet, even though it may not have been entirely accurate on this occasion, it came to my mind. Its accuracy might be questioned in several respects.

Evergreen Baby in Colorado

Central City Opera celebrated the 60th anniversary of The Ballad of Baby Doe with a hip, canny, multi-faceted new production.

Lean and Mean Tosca in Colorado

Someone forgot to tell Central City Opera that it would be difficult to fit Puccini’s (usually) architecturally large Tosca on their small stage.

Die Walküre, Baden-Baden

A cast worthy of Bayreuth made for an unforgettable Wagnerian experience at the Sommer Festspiele in Baden-Baden.

Des Moines’ Elusive Manon

Loving attention to the highest quality was everywhere evident in Des Moines Metro Opera’s Manon.

Falstaff in Iowa: A Big Fat Hit

Des Moines Metro Opera had (almost) all the laughs in the right places, and certainly had all the right singers in these meaty roles to make for an enjoyable outing with Verdi’s masterpiece

Die Fledermaus, Opera Holland Park

With the thermometers reaching boiling point, there’s no doubt that summer has finally arrived in London. But, the sun seems to have been shining over the large marquee in Holland Park all summer.

Nice, July 14, and then . . .

J.S. Bach’s cerebral Art of the Fugue in Aix, Verdi’s massive Requiem in Orange, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ ‘s fable of the camel, jackal, wolf and crow, Sophocles’ blind Oedipus Rex and the Bible’s triumphant Psalm No. 150 in Aix.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance

The champagne corks popped at the close of this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House, with Prince Orlofsky’s celebratory toast forming a fitting conclusion to some superb singing.

Prom 2: Boris Godunov, ROH

Bryn Terfel is making a habit of performing Russian patriarchs at the Proms.

Des Moines’ Gluck Sets the Standard

What happens when just everything about an operatic performance goes joyously right?

Des Moines: Jewels in Perfect Settings

Two years ago, the well-established Des Moines Metro Opera experimented with a 2nd Stages program, with performances programmed outside of their home stage at Simpson College.

First Night of the Proms 2016

What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that.

La Cenerentola, Opera Holland Park

In a fairy-tale, it can sometimes feel as if one is living a dream but on the verge of being awoken to a shock. Such is life in these dark and uncertain days.

Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno in Aix

The tense, three hour knock-down-drag-out seduction of Beauty by Pleasure consumed our souls in this triumphal evening. Forget Time and Disillusion as destructors, they were the very constructors of the beauty and pleasure found in this miniature oratorio.

Pelleas et Mélisande in Aix

Three parallel universes (before losing count) — the ephemeral Debussy/Maeterlinck masterpiece, the Debussy symphonic tone poem, and the twisted intricacies of a moldy, parochially English country estate.

Siegfried, Opera North

This, alas, was where I had to sign off. A weekend conference on Parsifal (including, on the Saturday, a showing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film) mean that I missed Götterdämmerung, skipping straight to the sequel.

Götterdämmerung, Opera North

The culmination of Opera North’s “Ring for Everyone”, this Götterdämmerung showed the power of the condensed movement so necessary in a staged performance - each gesture of each character was perfectly judged - as well as the visceral power of having Wagner’s huge orchestra on stage as opposed to the pit.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Karita Mattila in the title role of Richard Strauss's
21 Oct 2008

Salome at the MET

We ought to consider – as opera’s current reigning soprano, Karita Mattila, has certainly considered, though I’m not so sure about director Jürgen Flimm – who, what, and how old Salome is.

Richard Strauss: Salome

Salome: Karita Mattila; Herodias: Ildikó Komlósi; Herod: Kim Begley; Jochanaan: Juha Uusitalo; Page: Lucy Schaufer; Nazarene: Morris Robinson. Conducted by Patrick Summers. Production by Jürgen Flimm. Metropolitan Opera.

Above: Karita Mattila in the title role of Richard Strauss's "Salome." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

 

To the evangelists, Matthew and Mark, she was not a personality at all; they do not even give her a name – she’s just the daughter of wicked Herodias, a child with no character, will or desires of her own, or a figure (as they tell it) in anyone else’s desires. Herodias, Princess of Judaea – as always before Wilde – was the villain of the piece, and she’s angry that a hermit from the desert has dared to criticize her marital rearrangements.

SALOME_Komlosi_as_Herodias_.pngIldikó Komlósi as Herodias in Richard Strauss's "Salome." Photo: Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

Oscar Wilde did not get his plot from the Bible – he got it from Flaubert’s Orientalist novella, Herodiade (also the basis for a ghastly Hollywood movie starring Rita Hayworth and Judith Anderson), into which he tossed the wild (sic) card of his sympathy for innocents corrupted when they acknowledge the sex urge. This neurotic and personal vision – which had not yet worked itself up into tragedy in his own life, as it soon would – is the Salome he wished to behold on stage: himself as naïve young thing. Salome is aware of her power and her beauty but innocent of desire. The sight of the incongruous Baptist, so unlike the elegant decadence of her native milieu, so much cleaner in his filth, and so ready to taunt the mother she hates frees Wilde’s Salome to understand her own body – and to desire another’s. The story then could go either way: she could renounce sensuality to follow the saint (as she does in Massenet’s Herodiade) or yield to it and destroy him – and thus her own guilt-wracked self. That is what Wilde presented in his scandalous play – written en Français for Sarah Bernhardt, who never risked playing it – the piece could not be given in England at all, as Bible stories were forbidden on the stage at that time. (Saint-Saens’s Samson et Dalila was given in London as an oratorio. Herodiade did not appear at all. Strauss’s Salome was long banned in England, as it was at the Met.)

SALOME_Begley_as_Herod_1600.pngKim Begley as Herod in Richard Strauss's "Salome." Photo: Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

This sexless, unaware child not the Salome we usually get in the opera house. Strauss may or may not have approved of the lost-little-girl hypothesis, but he wrote her music for Wagnerian pipes, and few indeed are the singers who can hurl it over a hundred-instrument orchestra while impersonating a prepubescent. Too, Salome is nowadays (unlike in Strauss’s day) expected to do her own dancing without a ballerina body double, and childish restraint is seldom a feature of these solos. (Teresa Stratas, who sings, acts and dances a credible nymphet in my favorite film of the opera, would never have risked so heavy a role in a theater.) We go to Salome expecting to suspend disbelief about a great deal more than a papier-mâché head.

SALOME_Uusitalo_as_Jochanaa.pngJuha Uusitalo as Jochanaan in Richard Strauss's "Salome." Photo: Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

When Mattila first sang the part at the Met in 2004, her performance was stunning but dangerous: the gorgeous silvery sheen that we have loved in her Jenufa, Katya, Lisa, Elsa, Eva, Chrysothemis, Elisabetta was in trouble, pushing her close to the edge of control. She did not sing the part again after that run, anywhere, until this season, and she has rethought her approach. You can sing Salome on the high part of your voice or on the low, and she has – wisely, in my opinion; but this is a singer who has always known exactly what she was doing – reconsidered. There was the safety of her instrument for one thing (now that she is crowding fifty); too, there is the HDTV audience to consider, the closeup factor far from incidental to any singing actress as perfectionist as Mattila: these performances will be broadcast around the world this Saturday, will live on on television and tape.

Now she sings the music low. The notes are the same, but they are formed, I think (I do not have vocal training) in a different part of her diaphragm, and they sound different, heavier, deeper. The light, silvery glamour of the voice that sang Jenufa is represented here only in her idle musings on the moon (“she is like a virgin … I’m sure she is chaste”), when, drunk on too much wine in this production, she lets her head fall back and gazes ecstatically skywards. (There is no visible moon – we are to imagine that the terrace faces west, and the moon is setting across the fourth wall. At the opera’s end, the sky turns pale behind the singers, and clearly the sun is about to rise there – the new era Jochanaan has been talking about.) The silver returns again, a touch of sarcasm (broadly hinted by Strauss), when she tells Herod what she wants as a prize for dancing.

There are many grunts and grumbles in the way Mattila puts out Salome’s consciously outrageous teasing of Narraboth, Jochanaan and Herod – and they are all conscious choices of the singer. She is playing a spoiled teenage brat, who finds the formal manners of grownups boring. Her great monologues, too – the attempt to seduce Jochanaan, the final song to the head – are lower, meatier, darker; their sinister imagery more ominous when sung from this angle. In 2004, she sang Salome as an aspirant diva; in 2008, she’s a brat.

Her acting, too, had acquired detail: she portrays a girl who has been tasting champagne for the first time and had far too much of it, and at the first performance (but not the second I attended, so I imagine it was impromptu), when the amorous Syrian she has driven to suicide (an impressive Joseph Keiser) fell on the path in her way, she hopped over him as if he were some embarrassing accident. Too, at the conclusion of the opera, where Wilde (and Strauss) called for her to be unaware, crushed by the shields of Herod’s soldiers, and the Flimm staging instead has the executioner approach her, machete drawn, Mattila jumps up, pulling open her robe, as if conscious of defilement and eager to have it flayed out of her. The new, lower-focused voice risks less on the soaring Straussian curves, but it’s very beautiful and fills the house with ease and assurance. The dance, on the other hand, I continue to find over the top, and the loose seat of men’s trousers do not suit her voluptuous, utterly female body. But this is a Salome to remember, to hold as a standard for others, as Lubitsch and Nilsson were so long the standard for all Salomes.

SALOME_Mattila_Uusitalo_132.png(Left to Right) Juha Uusitalo as Jochanaan, Karita Mattila as Salome, and Keith Miller as the First Soldier in Richard Strauss's "Salome." Photo: Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

She is surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast. Ildikó Komlósi reminds us that Salome’s role as belle of the royal feasts is new, that mama has been holding this corner for quite some time – and like many a queen bee, she is torn between pride and jealousy of her newly aware, nearly grownup daughter. Komlósi is more society hostess and, later, droopy drunk, than the sinister monstrosity of so many productions, and she sings with a juicy, full-throated mezzo that should have a grand time with Ortrud and the Amme. Juha Uusitalo, though a bit stout for a man on a diet of locusts, sings Jochanaan’s sermons with brute intensity and correctly refuses to glance in Salome’s direction. Kim Begley makes a suave, corpulently lecherous Herod – in his willingness to play the fool for a good time, he reminded me of Nikita Khrushchev. Morris Robinson sang an impressive Nazarene, and the many small but notoriously difficult small roles were well handled. Patrick Summers has a wicked way of conducting Strauss, insinuating, hissing snakes rather than roaring lions, and the orchestra played like a dream for him – the many subtle cues for the entrance of this or that character timed to perfection, so that the motif seemed to rise like moondust from each actor’s feet.

Jürgen Flimm, whose Fidelio was at once ugly and irrelevant, though not when Mattila was on stage in it, sets Salome in something like a modern Emirates resort hotel on the desert’s edge – the gowns, aside from Salome’s shimmering silver, seem to be Vegas outrageous; while the soldiers are in Arab headgear and fatigue kilts. Flimm brings on huge winged angels of death (isn’t there just one?) to sit on the dunes silently whenever fatality is imminent, and Jochanaan is awkwardly raised and lowered on a makeshift elevator. What five Orthodox Jews in earlocks are doing at such a party, and why the Nazarenes, who are not invited guests at all (would they come?), are strolling about the desert is unclear – no doubt Flimm wishes he could discard them altogether in favor of the silent females in cocktail dresses who were not in Flaubert, Wilde or Strauss. Like so many modern directors, Flimm gets a few clever ideas and then runs out of them with half his opera unaccounted for. He may charm Madame Mattila (and I willingly kowtow to her desires, however – in Flimm’s case – perverse), but he doesn’t appeal to me, and I doubt his staging or Doug Varone’s choreography of the Dance will serve other sopranos half so well.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):