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

Grange Park Opera travels to America

The Italian censors forced Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Antonio Somma to relocate their operatic drama of the murder of the Swedish King Gustav III to Boston, demote the monarch to state governor and rename him Riccardo, and for their production of Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera, director Stephen Medcalf and designer Jamie Vartan have left the ‘ruler’ in his censorial exile.

Puccini’s La bohème at The Royal Opera House

When I reviewed Covent Garden’s Tosca back in January, I came very close to suggesting that we might be entering a period of crisis in casting the great Puccini operas. Fast forward six months, and what a world of difference!

Na’ama Zisser's Mamzer Bastard (world premiere)

Let me begin, like an undergraduate unsure quite what to say at the beginning of an essay: there were many reasons to admire the first performance of Na’ama Zisser’s opera, Mamzer Bastard, a co-commission from the Royal Opera and the Guildhall.

Les Arts Florissants : An English Garden, Barbican London

At the Barbican, London, Les Arts Florissants conducted by Paul Agnew, with soloists of Le Jardin de Voix in "An English Garden" a semi-staged programme of English baroque.

Die Walküre in San Francisco

The hero Siegfried in utero, Siegmund dead, Wotan humiliated, Brünnhilde asleep, San Francisco’s Ring ripped relentlessly into the shredded emotional lives of its gods and mortals. Conductor Donald Runnicles laid bare Richard Wagner’s score in its most heroic and in its most personal revelations, in their intimacy and in their exploding release.

Das Rheingold in San Francisco

Alberich’s ring forged, the gods moved into Valhalla, Loge’s Bic flicked, Wagner’s cumbersome nineteenth century mythology began unfolding last night here in Bayreuth-by-the-Bay.

ENO's Acis and Galatea at Lilian Baylis House

The shepherds and nymphs are at play! It’s end-of-the-year office-party time in Elysium. The bean-bags, balloons and banners - ‘Work Hard, Play Harder’ - invite the weary workers of Mountain Media to let their hair down, and enter the ‘Groves of Delights and Crystal Fountains’.

Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House

Since returning to London in January, I have been heartened by much of what I have seen - and indeed heard - from the Royal Opera.

Stéphane Degout and Simon Lepper

Another wonderful Wigmore song recital: this time from Stéphane Degout – recently shining in George Benjamin's new operatic masterpiece,

An excellent La finta semplice from Classical Opera

‘How beautiful it is to love! But even more beautiful is freedom!’ The opening lines of the libretto of Mozart’s La finta semplice are as contradictory as the unfolding tale is ridiculous. Either that master of comedy, Carlo Goldoni, was having an off-day when he penned the text - which was performed during the Carnival of 1764 in the Teatro Giustiniani di S. Moisè in Venice with music by Salvatore Perillo - or Marco Coltellini, the poeta cesareo who was entertaining the Viennese aristocracy in 1768, took unfortunate liberties with poetry and plot.

Whatever Love Is: The Prince Consort at Wigmore Hall

‘We love singing songs, telling stories …’ profess The Prince Consort on their website, and this carefully curated programme at Wigmore Hall perfectly embodied this passion, as Artistic Director and pianist Alisdair Hogarth was joined by tenor Andrew Staples (the Consort’s Creative Director), Verity Wingate (soprano) and poet Laura Mucha to reflect on ‘whatever love is’.

Bryn Terfel's magnetic Mephisto in Amsterdam

It had been a while since Bryn Terfel sang a complete opera role in Amsterdam. Back in 2002 his larger-than-life Doctor Dulcamara hijacked the stage of what was then De Nederlandse Opera, now Dutch National Opera.

A volcanic Elektra by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic

“There are no gods in heaven!” sings Elektra just before her brother Orest kills their mother. In the Greek plays about the cursed House of Atreus the Olympian gods command the banished Orestes to return home and avenge his father Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra. He dispatches both her and her lover Aegisthus.

A culinary coupling from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

What a treat the London Music Conservatoires serve up for opera-goers each season. After the Royal Academy’s Bizet double-bill of Le docteur Miracle and La tragédie de Carmen, and in advance of the Royal College’s forthcoming pairing of Huw Watkins’ new opera, In the Locked Room, based on a short story by Thomas Hardy, and The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama have delivered a culinary coupling of Paul Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner and Sir Lennox Berkeley’s The Dinner Engagement which the Conservatoire last presented for our delectation in November 2006.

Così fan tutte: Opera Holland Park

Absence makes the heart grow fonder; or does it? In Così fan tutte, who knows? Or rather, what could such a question even mean?

The poignancy of triviality: Garsington Opera's Capriccio

“Wort oder Ton?” asks Richard Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio. The Countess answers with a question of her own, at the close of this self-consciously self-reflective Konversationstück für Musik: “Gibt es einen, der nicht trivail ist?” (“Is there any ending that isn’t trivial?”)

Netia Jones' new Die Zauberflöte opens Garsington Opera's 2018 season

“These portals, these columns prove/that wisdom, industry and art reside here.” So says Tamino, as he gazes up at the three imposing doors in the centre of Netia Jones’ replica of the 18th-century Wormsley Park House - in the grounds of which Garsington Opera’s ‘floating’ Pavilion makes its home each summer.

Feverish love at Opera Holland Park: a fine La traviata opens the 2018 season

If there were any doubts that it was soon to be curtains for Verdi’s titular, tubercular heroine then the tortured gasps of laboured, languishing breath which preceded Rodula Gaitanou’s new production of La traviata for Opera Holland Park would have swiftly served to dispel them.

Iestyn Davies and Fretwork bring about a meeting of the baroque and the modern

‘Music for a while/Shall all your cares beguile’. Standing in shadow, encircled by the five players of the viol consort Fretwork, as the summer storm raged outside Milton Court Concert Hall countertenor Iestyn Davies offered mesmeric reassurance to the capacity audience during this intriguing meeting of the baroque and the modern.

Works by Beethoven and Gerald Barry

As a whole, this concert proved a curious affair. It probably made more sense in the context of Thomas Adès’s series of Beethoven and Barry concerts with the Britten Sinfonia. The idea of a night off from the symphonic Beethoven to turn to chamber works was, in principle, a good one, but the sole Gerald Barry piece here seemed oddly out of place – and not in a productive, provocative way. Even the Beethoven pieces did not really seem to fit together especially well. A lovely performance of the op.16 Quintet nevertheless made the evening worthwhile.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Salome (Voigt) revels in finally getting Jokanaan's head [Photo by Scott Suchman courtesy of Washington National Opera]
13 Oct 2010

Salome at the Washington National Opera

With its playbill half-empty, its general director Placido Domingo resigning, and the talk of a takeover by the Kennedy Center, Washington National Opera is in a dire need of good news this season.

Richard Strauss: Salome

Salome: Deborah Voigt; Herod: Richard Berkeley-Steele: Jokanaan: Daniel Sumegi; Herodias: Doris Soffel; Narraboth: Sean Panikkar; Page: Cynthia Hanna; Slave: Jegyung Yang; First Jew: John Weber; Second Jew: James S. Bailey; Third Jew: Corey Evan Rotz; Fourth Jew: Tim Augustin; Fifth Jew: David B. Morris; First Soldier: Grigory Soloviov; Second Soldier: Christopher Douglas Rhodovi; Cappadocian: Aleksey Bogdanov; First Nazarene: Robert Cantrell; Second Nazarene: Robert Baker. Conductor: Philippe Auguin. Director: Francesca Zambello. Set Designer: Peter J. Davison. Costume Designer: Anita Yavich. Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough. Choreographer: Yael Levitin. Washington National Opera.

Above: Deborah Voigt as Salome (Voigt)

All photos by Scott Suchman courtesy of Washington National Opera

 

The horizon looks brighter these days, thanks to a brand-new production of Richard Strauss’ decadent blockbuster, Salome (1905), based on Oscar Wilde’s infamous play. Staged by a sought-after drama and opera director Francesca Zambello, this production is an impressive experience. The central element of the set is a floor-to-ceiling, transparent plastic curtain that separates the dark courtyard of the proscenium, with the cistern at its center, from the illuminated banquet table at the back of the stage. In her comments about the production, Zambello discusses her vision of Herod’s court being trapped in an endless cheery feast, as imprisoned in its public role as Jokanaan is in his cistern, and much less free. The plastic indeed gives an impression both of artificiality and of being enclosed, wrapped up, vacuum-sealed. Additionally, it provides a grateful surface for the lighting designer Mark McCullough, whose vivid colors flooding the stage in gold, blue, purple, and blood-red glow is one of the most important aspects of the production.

The main attraction of the evening was acclaimed American dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt as Salome. Throughout the performance, Voigt had no trouble defending her reputation as one of today’s definitive interpreters of this fiendishly complex role. I say this despite the fact that the singer’s low register is much less powerful than her high, so some phrases, especially in the chatty opening scenes, tended to get lost in the orchestral fabric, for no live performer of this role can expect to carry its every note equally; the only perfect Salome is a recorded one. What is perhaps most fascinating about a staged production of this opera is watching the lead singer read the title role. Which of the numerous possible variations of Salome’s character, her relationship to her family, and the motivations for her obsession are we going to see? Is this Salome to be condemned or redeemed; is she a victor or a victim?

Voigt’s interpretation seems to follow what one might call a Teresa Stratas model. She plays Salome “young”; vulnerable and strangely innocent, she is like a spoilt, mischievous child longing for a toy, trying to articulate her desires more to herself than to their object. The director’s reading of the story suggests that although Salome is habitually molested not only by her stepfather, but also the soldiers of the palace guard, she is not mature enough to process the experience. She flirts with anyone who has the power of getting her what she wants, but seems not to comprehend her counterparts’ reactions to her presence. In her unguarded moments, she responds with an almost violent repulsion to any male’s physical proximity to her, however innocent. Thus, we begin to understand her immediate fascination with the hidden Jokanaan: she is attracted to his “absence”; to the unreality of his disembodied voice carried powerfully out of the cistern.

Salome is a dark opera; literally dark, as the libretto specifies a nighttime setting, and psychologically dark, the story tailor-made for a twisted Freudian reading. What struck me as unusual and unexpected in Voigt’s interpretation are the moments when she radiates a palpable sense of joy, quiet shimmering contentment. The singer starts her final “Apostrophe to the Head” softly, almost whispering.

Soffel_034_cr.gifDoris Soffel as Herodias

She takes her time closing in on Jokanaan’s severed head, savoring the experience of the first kiss (perhaps – or so Voigt would have us believe – it really is her first one). This scene, often a place of unrestrained hysteria, is understated, at times almost demure. Salome’s clothing incorporates a gown of deep red (similar to Maria Ewing’s costume from the Covent Garden production) over a white dress resembling the one Catherine Malfitano wears in the Met staging. Yet, by the end of the scene, Voigt’s Salome is not bathed in blood like Malfitano’s. Rather, only the tips of her fingers are bloody, like a shiny manicure; she then touches her fingers to her cheeks, as if applying rouge to match her pretty dress. This Salome does not embrace the horror of the experience; her world is entirely outside it.

The only disappointing moment of the role was its most anticipated one – the Dance of the Seven Veils. It seems that Zambello and the choreographer, Yael Levitin Saban (or perhaps Voigt herself, depending on who made the ultimate decision about how to stage the scene) could not make up their minds about how risqué they wanted the dance to get. So, the veils came off, but were immediately replaced by other veils (provided by four dancing assistants – all, alas, much younger, thinner, and more flexible than the star attraction). Voigt performed the dance herself rather than being replaced by a double, but her efforts seemed half-hearted, with barely a movement of the hips and much awkward arm waving. Finally, on the ultimate question: “to strip or not to strip” (the question that every Salome watcher wants answered!), the decision was apparently to do both (or neither?): at the end of the dance, Voigt appeared in a thick, unfortunate-looking bodysuit for about a chord and a half, before being covered with the veils again. Overall, it looked like Herod made a bad bargain: this dance was not worth a hair off the prophet’s head.

Panikkar,-Rhodovi,-Sumegi-a.gifNarraboth (Panikkar) and the Second Soldier (Rhodovi) look on anxiously as Salome (Voigt) tries to entice Jokanaan (Sumegi)

Particularly this prophet, for Australian bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi stole the show as Jokanaan. His deep, thunderous voice and his carpenter physique accentuated by clever body make-up made Salome’s lack of self-control feel entirely plausible. Strauss does not give a Jokanaan performer much to work with: his lines are squarely diatonic, monotonous, and dull. Yet Sumegi (under Zambello’s inspired direction) brought an unexpected complexity to the role by placing Jokanaan into an unusual physical proximity to Salome and thus forcing him to respond, perhaps against his will, to her vital, lustrous sensuality. This Jokanaan is forced to feel for Salome the same passion exhibited by every male character on stage, from Herod to a common soldier. We see him visibly tearing his hands away from her each time he forces himself to reject her. The moment toward the end of the duet when Salome melts into his arms as he is rocking her back and forth, like a child, their bodies bathed in a golden light and their faces lifted upward in ecstasy (both spiritual and sensual) at their impossible union is a masterstroke. Although one does wish that particular golden color were used more sparingly, or perhaps even saved for that climactic moment. As it is, the gold shimmer that accompanies just about every sound uttered from the cistern in the opening scene might be a bit of overkill. It is as if Zambello was trying to counteract the composer’s atheism and his evident dislike of Jokanaan’s character by validating the imprisoned prophet’s every word. It almost makes one sympathize with poor Herodias, who does not believe in miracles and wishes that the annoying man would just be quiet.

Berkeley-Steele-and-Weber-(.gifHerod (Berkeley-Steele) explains to the Jews (Weber, Bailey, Rotz, Augustin and Morris) how he thinks Jokanann is a holy man.

Speaking of the Queen of Judea, German mezzo-soprano Dorris Soffel, in her WNO debut, was a fabulously unpleasant Herodias – cold, ambitious, greedy, jealous, and proud. Her powerful voice carried easily over the orchestra and over her husband’s shy tenor. She also held her own well in a power struggle with Voigt’s Salome; when Herod says despairingly: “she is her mother’s daughter,” he only confirms what the audience has already perceived. British tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele was undoubtedly the weakest of the soloists, yet he proved an effective Herod – a feeble personality entirely dominated by his women and unable to decide whether he was more terrified of God’s prophet or his own wife. Equally effective in his role was young American tenor Sean Panikkar (Narraboth), whose clear tenor carries both the metal of a soldier and vulnerability of an infatuated youth. Panikkar, who has also made his WNO debut in this production, is a wonderful find; hopefully, we will hear him in Washington again. Cynthia Hanna, on the other hand, was a disappointing Page.

Zambello’s new staging and much of the vocal cast was not all that was new in WNO’s Salome: the orchestra was led by its newly appointed music director, Philippe Auguin, whose selection was announced mere two days before the premiere. Auguin is familiar to the Washington audiences from his acclaimed concert performances of Götterdämmerung last November, and the ensemble appears to have welcomed his presence at the podium. It has palpably reawakened under Auguin’s deft leadership, and acquitted itself creditably in the extremely complex Strauss score. There were still issues of balance: at one point, the timpani were so outrageously loud that they made Voigt’s already difficult job of out-singing a late Romantic orchestra well-nigh impossible. But at least, the musicians were in tune, and the embarrassing lapses in the winds and brass that I often remarked upon in my previous WNO reviews have been mostly avoided. While some moments worked better than others, their performance allowed the audience to be swept away by the feverish intensity of the score, matched almost without exception by the director’s vision.

Hanna_002_cr.gifPage of Herodias (Hanna) peers into the cistern.

The main difficulty in staging Salome, in my opinion, lies in the fact that Richard Strauss conceived it as a true music drama. The production only works if all its elements – the rendition of the score by singers and orchestra, the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the acting and the stage movement – are of equally and consistently high quality. Even by this admittedly impossible standard, I would call WNO’s new Salome a success. Let us hope that the company’s spring line-up of Madama Butterfly, Iphigénie in Tauride, and Don Pasquale proves as memorable.

Olga Haldey

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):