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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

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