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Lise Lindstrom as Salome [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of San Diego Opera]
02 Feb 2012

Salome, San Diego

The San Diego Opera Company opened its 47th season on Saturday, January 26th with Richard Strauss’ Salome, a work that has something in it for everyone: lust, love, lasciviousness, homosexuality, heterosexuality, homicide, suicide, a voluptuous dance and quickie nudity.

Richard Strauss: Salome

Salome: Lise Lindstrom; Jochanaan: Greer Grimsley; Herod: Allan Glassman;

Above: Lise Lindstrom as Salome

Photos by Ken Howard courtesy of San Diego Opera

 

There’s purity and Godliness too — all overlapping and jammed together so intensely into your eyes and ears, that when the curtain comes down you can be left gasping.

MG0572.pngGreer Grimsley as Jochanaan (John the Baptist)

Salome is a spoiled young Princess, the daughter of Herodias and step-daughter of Herod. Upon hearing the voice of the imprisoned John the Baptist (here called Jochanaan), she tempts Narraboth, a young soldier who loves her, to release him. Obsessed with Jochanaan, she is furious when he refuses to look at her, unmoved when Narraboth kills himself. As her reward for dancing for Herod she insists on having Jochanaan’s head. The extraordinary concluding scene of the opera begins as Salome waits fretfully for the prophet’s head to be brought to her, and ends in an insane frenzy when she kisses the prophet’s mouth, and Herod screams to his soldiers, “Kill that woman.”

Gustave Flaubert created an equally John-obsessed Salome in his story Herodias which formed the basis for Jules Massenet’s opera Herodiade. There’s no doubt Wilde knew Flaubert’s story. He wrote Salome in French in 1891 while living in Paris. An English translation (which Wilde disliked) was prepared by Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s 20-year old lover, in the hope of staging the play in London with Sarah Bernhardt. Alas, British censors forbade the presentation of biblical characters on stage. Germany, however, was not so strait-laced. The play in a German translation by Hedwig Lachman so transfixed Richard Strauss that he began working on it immediately.

MG1752.pngLise Lindstrom as Salome and Allan Glassman as Herod

The opera’s first performance took place in Dresden, Germany in December 1905. Austria took more time. The Viennese court opera refused to produce the work, but the directors of the small opera house in Graz, assured that this “ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle, based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company,” would produce a succès de scandale, agreed to the presentation. Its performance on May 16, 1906 proved a huge social and musical occasion. Strauss conducted. Giacomo Puccini, Gustav and Anna Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Zemlinsky and Alban Berg were among the composers present. The work was an instant success.

San Diego Opera’s production of Salome began life as a joint venture of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, San Francisco Opera and L’Opéra de Montréal. First performed in 2009, it was created and directed by choreographer Seán Curran with lighting and costumes by Bruno Schwengl.

The success of this difficult work depends largely on the talent and stamina of a soprano who looks like a teen age virgin, and who can sing over a huge brass-heavy orchestra as easily as that other operatic virgin, Brunhilde. Strauss’ original orchestra called for a hundred and twelve musicians and included the newly invented Heckelphone, plus a harmonium and organ (both off stage). He eventually reduced the orchestra size. Even so, San Diego squeezed seventy musicians into its pit. Happily, its all star vocal cast met the challenges of their roles.

MG1887.pngIrina Mishura as Herodias and Lise Lindstrom as Salome

Lise Lindstrom’s soprano with its tender vibrato in middle voice, blossoms to silvery at the top with an edge that at once youthful and strong enough to ride the orchestral waves. Fiddling with her long hair and biting her nails, she gave a convincing portrayal of a spoiled young princess, was admirably feline in her pursuit of Jochanaan, and graceful in the not very voluptuous dance created by Curran. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsely was a resounding Jochanaan, clearly tempted by the young girl, and convincing as he tried vainly to move her to compassion. Mezzo soprano Irina Mishura’s Herodias, though well sung, was not a commanding presence. Someone should have told her not to wave her wrists around like a hapless housewife. Neither she, nor Allan Glassman, who sang gloriously as Herod, seemed like people capable of running an empire. I can only assume it was the direction that turned them into a pair of restless, ditzy characters. Tenor Sean Panikkar was compelling as the enraptured Narraboth.

Despite the excellent voices, sadly I was not as out breath as I would like to have been when the curtain descended. Part, I think can be attributed to the staging of the last moment of the opera in which Salome is on her feet, as though considering her deed, rather than being fully immersed in the horrid act that Herod is seeing and that the orchestra is describing. Steuart Bedford’s conducting too, often lost focus on the emotions that this hideous tale should evoke. The simplest example perhaps relates to the moments during which Salome is waiting for Jochanaan’s head — waiting to hear his scream, waiting for his body to fall. The only music Strauss gives us at first are B flats ticking unevenly in the bass.

The notes and intermittent silences, followed by the subsequent undulating comments of the woodwinds should have been chilling enough to make my skin crawl. They weren’t. Even at its screeching heights the orchestra often lacked tension and energy.

MG2035.pngLise Lindstrom as Salome

I am never happy to see a Salome without a moon. Wilde told Bernhardt that the moon had a leading part in the play. Directors who ignore the moon, ignore the poetry and imagery of the play. There are thirty-two mentions of “moon” in Wilde’s play, fifteen of “mond” in the libretto. A page described the moon the moment the curtain rises. “How strange the moon seems. She is like a woman rising from a tomb.” To which Narraboth responds, “a little princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver.” The moon’s appearances and disappearances move in relation to Salome’s actions. But there’s another reason I particularly missed the moon. The first musical note Strauss made on his copy of the Salome libretto was to set Salome’s key as C# minor, the key of the Moonlight Sonata. (Please don’t write to me, I know Beethoven didn’t give the sonata that name. But it had that name in Strauss’ time).

Finally, I’m also unhappy with Salomes in which only the five Jews are dressed in 21st century clothes with specifically identifiable Jewish religious accouterments. It’s both a stereotype and a cliché. A director who can do without a moon in Salome, can surely do without business suit and prayer shawls.

Estelle Gilson

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