Dallas — Some people just don’t take rejection well.
Foremost among them is Salome, the star of Richard Strauss’ one-act opera. She becomes infatuated with Jokanaan (John the Baptist) and, when he rejects her, she famously requests of her stepfather Herod to bring her Jokanaan’s head upon a platter. Herod has promised Salome that she can have anything she desires if she dances for him, so he is forced to comply with her wish.
Salome’s final aria is a gorgeous, cringe-inducing bit of necrophiliac self-indulgence as she sings of desire to Jokanaan’s blood-dripping severed head, then kisses it, emerging covered with blood.
Then, there’s the famous strip-tease “Dance of the Seven Veils.”
There’s a reason Dallas Opera labeled this production “Rated R.”
Yes, more than 100 years after its 1905 premiere, Salome can still shock. The Dallas Opera’s production not only shocks, though—it also delivers, with some of the best playing from the Dallas Opera orchestra I’ve heard recently, effective acting, and absolutely splendid singing. Oh, yes, and an effectively choreographed “Dance of the Seven Veils.”
Unsurprisingly, given her status as a pre-eminent American soprano, Deborah Voigt wowed the audience in her role as Salome. Her voice is powerful but rich and slightly dark, lending itself well to the darkness of her role. Her famous final area was absolutely stunning—the cognitive dissonance between the intense beauty of Voigt’s singing (and Strauss’s writing) and the bloody, dripping head of Jokanaan she caresses was powerful and disturbing, exactly as it should be.
Baritone Greer Grimsley matched Voigt’s intensity and power note-for-note—his voice is huge and glorious—but instead of yearning for human love, he expresses his desire to serve God, rejecting and cursing Salome. This disconnect between his cravings and Salome’s lust dooms him.
When the cranky Herod asks Salome to soothe him by dancing for him, she initially demurs—after all, he is her stepfather, so his sexual desire for her is disturbing not only to her but also to her mother, Herod’s wife, Herodias. She acquiesces when he promises her anything in exchange for her dance. She realizes that she can revenge herself upon Jokanaan, so agrees to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils.
In this production, Voigt’s dancing (which is not half bad) is assisted by four modern dancers not listed in the program. They twirl and roll and twist their sinewy bodies, and in the dance’s denouement, in which Voigt momentarily drops her dress to reveal a nude-colored body suit, rather anticlimactically shield her with veils and whisk her offstage.
She then gets her desire—Herod must ever so reluctantly acquiesce to her wish. After all, he has promised. So she gets Jokanaan’s head, on a silver platter, and the 90-minute production ends as she sings to the head, Herod looks on horrified (don’t we all?), and he orders his soldiers to kill Salome, which they do with dispatch. No dying arias here—death is swift and final.
Sets for this production are simultaneously impressive and odd—while the stage is divided by what looks like a giant clear shower curtain that glows with red lights during Salome’s final aria, the colors of the rest of the set, dominantly blue and orange, support the intensity of the music and the plot.
Costumes are also hit and miss—Herod and Herodias are attired in glorious purple-and-gold, but through most of the production Salome wears an off-white shift, an odd choice. It is not until her dance that she dons color. Afterward, she covers the dirty white (symbolic of her depravity, perhaps?) shift with a red velvet robe for her final scene with Jokanaan’s head—the red of the robe of course matching the red of the blood with which she is soon smeared.
It’s a credit to Oscar Wilde’s pithiness that the words of his play, converted into a German opera libretto then translated back into English, can still be funny. At one point, Herod exclaims, “I slipped in blood. A bad omen.” Well, yes. And then Herodias utters her famous line, “I’ve seen too many miracles to believe in them.” Indeed.
This is an outstanding production, and at only 90 minutes long, not the usual opera marathon. Just to hear Voigt and Grimsley sing is well worthwhile. Go. But don’t take the kids.