Dallas — The Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte delivered an astounding and definitive performance of the notoriously difficult title role in Richard Strauss’ scandalous opera Salome. Presented by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in the Meyerson Symphony Center in a semi-staged performance (directed by Alberto Triola) on Friday evening, she was incendiary all evening.
While other aspects of the performance were problematic, Stundyte was magnificent. Both physically and vocally, she showed us all sides of Salome’s deeply neurotic personality, from bubbling girlish glee to sex-drenched psychopath, in quicksilver transformations. Vocally, she blazed on her many trips to the top of the soprano range to menacing contralto depths with her perfectly produced voice, which ranged from dramatic to lyric soprano qualities. But it was her completely believable interpretation that transfixed the audience. While the rest of the production was indeed semi-staged around her, there wasn’t a single “semi” moment for Stundyte. Like a few exceptional artists, such as Maria Callas and Ailyn Pérez, she was Salome.
This review could end here because it will be impossible to describe what it was like to experience her astonishing performance in mere words. There is one performance remaining, at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2, and I highly recommend that you see.
That’s not to say that this production is without fault.
Music Director Designate Fabio Luisi did a wonderful job helping the DSO to navigate Strauss’ dense and highly complex score. However, he let passion get away from him and was frequently, almost always, way too loud. There are places in this hugely orchestrated score where maximum dynamics are required, and he effectively delivered those moments and then some. But other than in these few goose bump-inducing places, the entire dynamic level could have been drastically reduced. Not only did he create dynamic fatigue, but he frequently covered the singers or forced them to over-sing; such pushing wasn’t required by the composer. Worse, he was unhelpful when the composer sent Stundyte into an unnaturally low register for a soprano, when she obviously wished to sing in the middle voice as befit her portrayal of a 16-year-old girl, without resorting to the more mature sound of chest voice.
One reason for this miscalculation might have been the fact that both the singers and the orchestra shared the stage level. Luisi is a frequent presence in many of the world’s great opera houses in which the orchestra is in a pit, which modulates the sound. Further, this arrangement places him in front of the orchestra and the singers so that he can constantly adjust balance. Hopefully this will be different on Sunday.
Also on the questionable list is the stiff and unnuanced performance of Herwig Pecoraro’s Herod. Vocally he was adequate but his lack of involvement in the role was amply demonstrated for all to see because he conducted himself with one hand all evening. His operetta-style red spangly vest and bow tie, as well as memory slips, didn’t add to our belief that he was the Tetrarch of Judaea and Perea either. This casting had an ironic twist in that one of the notable Herods of our time, Allan Glassman, was relegated to the secondary role of the First Jew.
Those problems aside, the remainder of the cast was excellent. Tenor Richard Trey Smagur impressed at the beginning of the opera as Narraboth, the captain of the guards, who is hopelessly in Salome’s power. As the imprisoned Jochanaan (John the Baptist), Mark Delavan delivered a multi-faceted interpretation during his pivotal interaction with Salome. He was both consoling, such as when he sent her to Jesus for salvation, and absolutely terrifying when he realized that she was lost a long time ago and delivered a blistering curse, pushing her over the edge into complete insanity.
Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop was a coolly reserved Herodias, the disgraced wife of Herod. But her delight in her daughter’s request for the severed head of Jochanaan, who frequently called her out as the whore of Babylon, gave us a glimpse of the depth of her depravity. Mezzo-soprano Deniz Uzun gave us a spitfire but androgynous portrayal of the page, a pants role that is perhaps left open to be any youngster.
Choreographer Catherine Gala reached an acceptable compromise between her semi-staged assignment and public expectations for Salome’s infamous Dance of the Seven Veils. There were lots of veils, borrowed from the gaggle of Jews, but they only covered her slinky silver lamé evening gown. But as the dance progressed, it became more and more sexual. It fit in perfectly with stage director Alberto Triola’s effective semi-staged staging. Too bad Herod didn’t seem to notice it much. But overall, Triola did a masterful job. Even the bait-and-switch trick with the prophet’s severed head that Salome cuddles and finally kisses felt appropriate and within the concert constraints. Of course, he has the incomparable Ausrine Stundyte with which to work his magic.