Santa Fe, N.M. — The Santa Fe Opera assembled a dream cast for this season’s production of Richard Strauss’ first big hit, Salome. Based on the Oscar Wilde play, written in lofty French, which in turn is based on a passage from the Gospel According to Mark in the Bible. Strauss set it in a German transition, but one of the all time great Salomes, Mary Garden, sang it in Wide’s French. French or German, this is a truly decadent piece of theater. Sex, child molestation, insane lust, a dysfunctional family (to say the least), a willful petulant teenage girl, and a climatic moment of necrophilia: all in 90 minutes (although it ran longer on Friday) of ultra over-ripe chromatic romanticism. What is not to love?
Soprano Alex Penda is a dream come true in the punishing role of Salome. She proved her spinto bona fides last season in an equally demanding role: Leonora in Beethoven’s Fidelio. She has the range for Salome, from the alto’s low “G” to the soprano’s high “B,” and the power needed to sing over the humongous orchestra. Also, her slight frame makes her believable as a teenager.
Penda was marvelous throughout. She colored her voice on an “as needed” basis: lyrical to mocking and sincere to dripping with contempt. While the entire voice is huge, her top notes sound like she shifts into hyper-drive. They are a magnitude bigger than the rest of the voice: a trait that is very helpful in this role. She also pulls off the change from spoiled brat to a shattered mind, seemingly without a noticeable transition.
As the object of her obsessive desire, Ryan McKinny, in his house debut, also has the vocal chops to sing the shorter, but very demanding, role of Jochanaan (better known as John the Baptist). His is voice is well matched: huge and deep with lots of resonance and a secure top. From the very first time we hear him offstage, actually down in the cistern, our attention is riveted to every note. The opera is full of one big harmonic resolution after another, but his part is the same but greatly condensed. Almost every phrase ends in a big Straussian resolution. McKinny appears to have an inexhaustible reserve of vocal power for such moments and he fires them off easily, without the apparent extra oomph that other portrayals of the role seem to require.
In an opera filled with difficult roles with extreme ranges, the heldentenor role of Herod does not immediately come to mind as the most challenging. However, it might be the most difficult of all them. Not only does it have the killer tessitura but much of it is chromatic to the point of near atonality. Very little of it is lyrical singing and the tenor is stuck with one difficult and declamatory line after another. In addition, Herod has the most difficult acting assignment: appearing to be sane and totally insane at the same time.
Robert Brubaker is nothing short of magnificent in the role. His quicksilver mood changes appear and disappear like mayflies. Although he is respectful of his vicious wife, Herodias, his disgust with her is obvious although kept just under the surface. Vocally, he certainly rises to the extreme demands. He does not appear to tire even in the extended passage where he offers Salome just about anything he can think of to give up her demand for the severed head.
Dramatic mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens brings another huge voice to the mixture as Herodias. This is a deceptively difficult role in that she doesn’t have all that much to sing, but every phrase is critical and some entrances are almost impossible to find. She brought a haughty humor to some of her lines but used others as a laser to wound her verbal foes.
As Narraboth, the lovesick captain of the guards, Brian Jagde displays a young stentorian tenor and is well on his way to singing a Herod himself. He over sang constantly, turning the simplest of conversational statements into mini arias. But you never tired of hearing his excellently produced and supported tenor voice. The other roles are cast from the apprentice program, which is one of the premier such programs in the country—if not the world. Thus, all of them are excellent, both vocally and dramatically.
The sad part of the production is that this superb cast of carefully assembled singers was lost in the misguided dramatic concept: from staging to set design to costume design and everything else that wasn’t singing.
David Robertson’s orchestra does a magnificent job of playing Strauss’ extremely difficult and very dense score. Unfortunately, he is about two decibel levels above where he should be for most of the opera. Even the big voices in this production were all covered at one time or another. There is an axiom in music that every piece has just one biggest moment and that all the other rival big moments must be just slightly under that. Many would say that the famously strange chord at the very end of the opera should get the honors, but the conductor has to make up his mind as to which one gets the prize. The loudest possible dynamic level was reached long before we were even 10 minutes into the opera.
The decision to move the opera forward in time added nothing but confusion and staging it contrary to the text seemed perverse. Some operas work very well moved forward or backward in time, but Salome is about real people facing a real situation that occurred at the time of Jesus. They do not bear a time shift easily and the resultant anachronisms are glaring. For example, the careless use of the absolute power of life and death that Herod exercised in regard to Narraboth was certainly a hallmark of the era of his rule. Would we move a drama about the Nixon White House to the middle ages? A biopic of Buddha to the 1950’s? Of course not.
Certainty, the director has an explanation for his temporal distortions. References to Freud, Wilde’s subtext and other explanatory details in the program notes help us to decipher what is going on. While such meddling may add an extra dimension to the tale, it comes off as just the opposite—commenting on the characters instead of portraying them.
In after-opera discussions with people whose opinion matters, it became apparent that others took the staging in a much more allegorical manner. However, a literal and temporally appropriate interpretation of this biblical tale appears to be inescapable: it is so firmly rooted in its time and place. Many operas do quite well when transplanted into different time periods and locations. A recent Santa Fe production of Bizet’s Carmen was delightful when moved to a contemporary Mexican border town. No one missed Spain. On the other hand, last season’s Santa Fe’s Fidelio was an uncomfortable fit, shoehorned into Hitler’s Germany.
The Salome set is a block of steel cubes, resembling a wall of flat video monitors, dominating the stage like some alien artifact. It rotates and opens windows, revealing the various scenes like museum dioramas. This works fine for the opening banquet but is less effective later on. Jochanaan is, indeed, down in the cistern early in the act, but the behemoth set turns and the windows open revealing him to be a cell suffused with the light and quite nicely furnished: desk, easy chairs, etc.
He is in a relatively clean suit, which renders all of Salome’s description of his lily-white body ridiculous. Salome, by the way, just waltzes in to this luxurious cell, which has no apparent bars.
From the costumes, we appear to be in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick (from the much-loved movie The Mouse That Roared). Everyone’s military getup is overly festooned with a plethora of medals. Salome’s main costume is a frilly party dress with lacey shoulder trim. It is inconceivable that the sexually driven and hormonally challenged teenager would wear such a thing. Herodias, unfortunately, resembles Margaret Dumont, the matron from the Marx Brothers movies.
The members of the court are not present, as the script demands. Herod barks out his commands to nonexistent servants so, naturally, none of them are carried out. However, this is an important point. It is only the fact that the bargain with Salome, a dance for promised lavish rewards, was made in front of the entire court that Herod feels compelled to keep it. He cannot appear to back down in front of the assemblage once he has given his word, or risk revolt. Here, the deal was only witnessed by Herodias—he could manage her, and no one would believe Salome. He could have backed out easily when she made such an outrageous demand. Or, he could have her killed, like he does anyway.
The dance of the seven veils, the crux of the opera, doesn’t really happen. It is turned into Salome’s nightmarish Freudian psychedelic trip. Salome starts off sexy enough, with some slinky moves, but she soon stops dancing and freaks out; she remembers witnessing the murder of her father by Herod, her uncle, as it is acted out behind her. It takes a while to figure out what is going on when this little drama starts to take place behind her, but you eventually catch on. In any case, the purpose of the dance in the plot, driving Herod mad with desire, is ruined. But, it really doesn’t matter because Herod isn’t watching her at all.
Why he thinks her dance was so magnificent and worthy of the promised award is a mystery.
These are big discrepancies but there are little things as well. Salome sits and eventually reclines on a stone fireplace that only moments earlier had a roaring fire going in it. Those stones would’ve been way too hot to sit on. Another example: the quarrelsome Jews are all dressed as officers in Herod’s Army, without any indication that they are Jews (which is the point of the scene). This makes their appearance strange indeed. Who are these impetuous officers who dare to argue with the King?
Go to Salome to hear some glorious singing. This is a very strong cast and worth the ticket price to experience them as an ensemble.
As to the rest of the folderol on stage, a review is just one person’s opinion and is, by definition, neither wrong nor right. Others disagreed. Perhaps I’m completely missing the director’s point and this production sheds a revealing new light on the motivations behind the play and thus the opera.
But I doubt it.
» Other reviews from the 2015 Santa Fe Opera season:
- Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain
- Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment
- Verdi's Rigoletto
- Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera