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Ionarts in Santa Fe: Salome

And so ends another year for Ionarts at Santa Fe Opera, with Richard Strauss's Salome (1905), a work that along with Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) set the tone for opera in the 20th century. Both adapted famous works of literature from the late 19th century, made famous by their controversial style and content. Opera as a genre would never be the same. Strauss was one of SFO Founder John Crosby's favorite composers, and over the course of its 50-year history, Santa Fe Opera has mounted 13 of his 15 operas (only Guntram and Die Frau ohne Schatten are on the To Do List), five of them for the first time ever in the United States.

Janice Watson with Jokanaan's head, Salome, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Janice Watson with Jokanaan's head, Salome, Santa Fe Opera,
photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Strauss had fallen out of regular performance at Santa Fe in recent years, but Stravinsky has fared much worse: since the 1970s, there has been only The Rake's Progress and that only twice, in 1981 and 1996. I was surprised to learn that Salome is the most performed Strauss opera at Santa Fe, with ten performances: I would have guessed Der Rosenkavalier, which is in second place with five. This year's production of Salome fell short of my expectations, sad to say. I was frankly puzzled by the audience's reaction, which was an unusual amount of laughter, at some of the least appropriate moments. Perhaps it is a sign of how social taboos have changed in the 100 years since Strauss first shocked the world with his operatic adaptation of Oscar Wilde's scandalous play. It is now apparently funny that Salome's motivation for causing John the Baptist to be executed was thwarted sexual desire. On the other hand, laughter is often a way to express discomfort.

Salome, Santa Fe Opera, with natural lighting, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Salome, Santa Fe Opera, with natural lighting, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Bruce Donnell directed a bare-bones staging, with almost non-existent sets and traditional, even stereotypical costumes designed by Neil Patel. The action took place on a steeply raked circle around the cistern where Jokanaan (John the Baptist) is held prisoner, the hole covered by what looked like a large salt shaker lid. There are torches to one side, the back of the theater is open to the vista of the Jeméz Mountains, and Herod and Herodias sit on something like director's chairs, brought in as they enter. Little changes for the nearly two hours without intermission. As in the superb photo shown at right, graciously offered to Ionarts by photographer Ken Howard, flashes of lightning in the distance added some much needed visual diversion.

Although there is little to suggest the decadence of this court and the incestuous depravity of this family, the score and libretto communicate it still quite forcefully. Perhaps the shocking indecency of the story would be more acidic, less likely to provoke laughter, if it were updated to, say, the setting of Desperate Housewives. A brazen teenage Britney Spears takes advantage of her lecherous and wealthy stepfather's lust for her to have a holy man put to death, only to kiss his decapitated head. On second thought, that is a terrible idea. The story is grotesque enough just as it is.

Janice Watson as Salome and Greer Grimsley as Jokanaan, Salome, Santa Fe Opera, with natural lighting, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Janice Watson as Salome and Greer Grimsley as Jokanaan, Salome, Santa Fe Opera, with natural lighting, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
The best singing of the evening came from Greer Grimsley, who was well received last summer in the Seattle Ring. He was commanding, apocalyptic, and august of voice as Jokanaan, resonant enough to be heard quite well even from inside the cistern. I know that Salome sings a lot about Jokanaan's white body, but I don't think it requires him to be costumed bare-chested, as Grimsley was here. In fact, to be true to the story in the Gospels, Jokanaan would probably look pretty much like hell warmed over, after living on grasshoppers in the wilderness and then rotting in Herod's prison. By comparison, English soprano Janice Watson was slightly underpowered in the title role, although she sang with incision and stridency on some of the highest notes. It is sometimes a necessary trade-off in casting Salome to sacrifice some of the vocal power needed to rise above the orchestra, out of concern for the physical demands of the role. Sadly, Watson was mostly awkward in the extended Dance of the Seven Veils, stripping down to seminudity as she knelt down in front of Herod, to be quickly covered in a robe by two servants.

Tenor Ragnar Ulfung has been a regular at Santa Fe Opera for 40 years, and casting him as Herod this year was a touching tribute to a man who first sang the role in Santa Fe in 1967. (You are mostly likely to have seen Ulfung as Monostatos in Ingmar Bergman's unforgettable film version of The Magic Flute.) That's a lot of water under the bridge, and it is hardly a surprise that his performance was often more like Sprechstimme than a Straussian role, imprecise and strained. English mezzo-soprano Anne-Marie Owens, reprising the role of Herodias from the 1998 Santa Fe production, was a potent, shrewish wife. The supporting cast was good, with particularly fine performances from tenor Dimitri Pittas as Narraboth and Andrea Silvestrelli (also Sarastro in this summer's Magic Flute) as the Cappadocian. Conductor John Fiore led the orchestra in a full-throated performance, surely not the full 105-instrument orchestration that Strauss originally penned. All the powerful sounds were there, including those thrilling trumpet statements of Jokanaan's dominating theme and the solo cello's cricket chirping as Salome listens to the silent execution and waits for the Baptist's head.

I am thrilled that Strauss appears to be back in Santa Fe, with the company's fourth mounting of Daphne on the calendar for next summer. I hope to hear a lot more Strauss over the next 50 years at Santa Fe Opera.


Clayton Koonce said...

This from recent reading of "Fortissimo": It seems that the more violent or horrible the subject matter, the easier it is for an opera production to teeter into unintended comedy if something about the production doesn't work. (Author Murray cited Tosca and Il Trovatore as operas that most often fall victim to this effect.) I can picture those moments in Salome when some of the audience responded with laughter, but, you're right, this opera still has the power to shock without any updating. In Baltimore's recent production, most of those moments were enacted in darkness with Salome vaguely discernible on stage. The audience was dead silent, and I couldn't believe what I was witnessing on an opera stage (my first time ever experiencing this opera). The shock expressed by Herod's character provided a parallel reaction on stage that we could identify with.

jfl said...

Old Herods are often criticized for wobbling and cracking their way through the score - often singing as Wagner would have been sung some 70 years ago. Alas, the reason they are cast so - seemingly often - must be, that directors appreciate the kind of characterization it gives to Herod. Most notable among these examples might be the appearance of Hiestermann in the Sinopoli Salome.

Where others criticize the obvious lack of melodic line, accuracy, beauty, I think that - especially from German speaking performer to German-understanding audience member, that kind of choice can be far superior than casting even a top "singer" in the role. Few characters are so decrepit as is Herod – whose inherent weakness makes him the subject of pity but also disgust; more so, perhaps, than the stronger, scheming women around him. To portray the lecherous, pathetic Herod weasling around with his tail between his legs, afraid to shake it before his wife (but winking it at his step daughter, as it were) with that kind of an ugly, insecure voice, can much benefit the presentation of the opera.

Of course there is no telling for me, from a thousand miles away, if that was the case here… but it might offer an explanation why those who cast Mr. Ulfung felt very comfortable with him, even if/especially because his instrument has deteriorated.


Charles T. Downey said...

Jens, you may be right. He is also an audience favorite in Santa Fe, which doesn't hurt.

Charles T. Downey said...

teddybear, thanks for that. I knew I should have checked the score instead of just going by sound.