San Antonio — This season Opera San Antonio has made its re-debut as the resident company of the shiny new and acoustically friendly H-E-B Performance Hall in the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. It is a stunningly beautiful hall that has all the feeling of a grand opera house with the standard horseshoe ring of balconies. Their fronts are drenched in a deep red color, but that can change to any other color that seems to fit with the production.
Red is the choice for the production of Salome, Richard Strauss’ biblically based opera about incest, illicit lust and necrophilia.
This opera is an odd selection for a gala opening of a new performance space. Something more festive is often expected for such an occasion. However, it has certain advantages, such as a small cast, no chorus and only requires one set. On the downside, Salome is nearly impossible to cast and requires a huge orchestra. Opera San Antonio Artistic Director Tobias Picker overcomes these two obstacles with an exceptional cast and the use of the San Antonio Symphony (greatly augmented, one assumes). Picker also scored with his choice of director Candace Evans, who is also a choreographer and who, through movement, works from the inside of the character outwards.
The much-anticipated star of the show is Metropolitan Opera star soprano Patricia Racette, in her first staged Salome. In my recent interview with her, she says that she planned to “go for it”—and that she does. She completely inhabits the character, but her own way.
This is an uncastable role. No soprano can ever pull off being a nubile teenager, let alone one who can sing this brutal music. We only need to look to all of the “pants” parts to see that mezzo-sopranos have trouble pulling off being “boys” like Cherubino (in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro), although some singers with slight builds can come close at a distance.
Racette is beautiful in her slinky dress and sparkly sandals, but it is her every movement that conveys a girlishness on the edge of womanhood. In fact, driven insane by the depravity of her life’s situation and unquenchable lust, we watch as she leaps across that line in a most horrific manner.
Some play Salome as bitter, others as a petulant spoiled brat. Racette is outright bored—bored with her disgusting stepfather drooling over her, bored with her mother seducing all of the soldiers at court, bored with fawning young men (such as the lovesick Naraboth) and already bored with what she sees as the rest of her life. Racette’s Salome begins to wake out of her stupor by the first sound of the imprisoned and wild prophet’s ravings. Whatever he is, he certainly is not boring and Racette’s Salome changes as she tumbles inexorably to her final repellent fate.
Racette’s round and full voice, so perfect for Puccini, is challenged by Strauss’ extreme demands and there are many places where she sings full out (and then some). But the sound, while different from Butterfly’s many cris de Coeur, is never quite distorted. Her cabaret experience gives her strength in the bottom range where many other sopranos have to use a raucous chest voice.
Her dance of the seven veils is not the usual striptease, although she ends up in the buff. Instead, it is just the “tease” part of that word. She lets a bit of leg show, but that’s about it until she sheds everything in one dramatic movement. (Unfortunately, she does this under a sheetlike cover before the revelation, as though she were the disappearing lady in some illusionist’s nightclub act.) Best, the dance has an improvised feel to it; at one point she actually sits down as though she had run out of ideas.
Near the end, almost as if in a fantasy, she meets up with four of the young servants in a lyrical dance. We see what her life might have been like in a different world. It makes her current situation all the more pathetic.
This will be a great role for her as her career progresses.
Allan Glassman is equally remarkable as Herod, singing better than ever. He plays him as someone who is mentally over the edge and requires the constant attention of a physician with a handy hypo. Glassman’s Herod is also as childish and immature as his stepdaughter—too used to being an absolute monarch to be a human. When Naraboth kills himself over Salome’s rejection, Glassman’s “I didn’t give orders to have him killed” is chilling in his cluelessness. Obviously, he gives kill orders frequently on a whim and no one dies otherwise.
Alan Held is vocally strong and physically wild as the prophet Jochanaan (John the Baptist). His stentorian statements about the depravity of Herod’s court and the arrival of the Messiah ring with a divinely inspired certainty. In Held’s interpretation, the prophet gets increasingly frantic in the face of Salome’s unrelenting advances, finally shaking with emotion and frustration as he curses her.
At one point near the end of the opera, an exhausted and defeated Herod tells Herodias that Salome is indeed her daughter, and he doesn’t mean it as a compliment. Michelle de Young plays Herodias exactly that way from the start. It’s obvious that this is exactly what would have become of Salome in other, less extreme circumstances. Her Wagnerian mezzo gives a steely quality to her portrayal that warns that standing up to her about anything is futile. Unfortunately, Strauss doesn’t give her much to really sing like some of her other roles.
Brian Jagde makes for an earnest Naraboth and is vocally fine, although he had a shaky start on Thursday. Renee Rapier does a good job as the page (dressed as a woman for once). The other singers turn in good performances in the supporting roles. The quarrelsome gaggle of Jews is especially noteworthy in that they don’t overplay and fall into offensive stereotypes, as often happens.
All of the above praise for these marvelously conceived characterizations has to shine a brilliant light on director/choreographer Candace Evans.
It’s too bad conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing revels in one overplayed fortissimo after another, forcing all of his vocalists to sing at 110 percent much more frequently than the roles require.
Every piece of music has one loudest moment and it is up to the conductor to decide where that will be and put all of the other candidates in a tier system. Admittedly, this is especially difficult on Strauss, whose musical style is one big harmonic resolution after another. But Lang-Lessing goes to the mat time and time again.
On the positive side, his tempi are right on throughout and he elicits fine playing from the San Antonio Symphony. He creates some truly spooky moments and some thrilling crescendi. He is also right with the stage most of the time.
Where the production disappoints is in the concept; it’s not clear whose it was, but set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland and costumer designer Linda Pisano aided in the misguided decision to move it to Downton Abbey, or something like that.
Operas are increasingly moved around in history and era, mostly with acceptable results. Puccini’s Tosca, for example, can be stuck in any Banana Republic or petty dictatorship. Verdi’s La traviata can work in today’s rarified high society as well as for which it was written. But Salome takes place at a highly specific time and place—during the reign of King Herod of Judea. It can be abstract but not relocated.
Like actions around the Big Bang, time gets confused at the zero line between AD and BC (codified in the sixth century by some monk). Herod’s reign is usually dated as 39 BC to 1 or 4 AD. This fits the action of the opera perfectly. Jesus was already in his ministry at the time and it was by the hand of Herod that he met his earthly end.
Herod definitely was not alive in the 1920s, when this production is vaguely set, and Jesus was most certainly not preaching from a boat in the flapper era.
Historical events that concern real people cannot move around in time, Zelig-like, because the ladies’ gowns are nicer than what was worn in Judea at the time.
If you can ignore this silliness, this production of Salome is as vocally resplendent and believable as you ever hope to see.