Richard Strauss’ colossal Salome was the second of Pittsburgh Opera’s offerings last night, and an immense audience rose in a roar when the curtain dropped at the conclusion of the one-act German masterpiece. Major road closures and detours couldn’t stop the mass of humanity that thronged the Benedum, although the curtain had to be held for a few minutes. There were many aspects of the production which warranted the enthusiasm, such as the marvelous interpretation of the orchestral score, but it might also be interpreted as a hint to the management that German music-drama is a welcome addition to the standard Italian and French operas usually on the company’s roster. Added to the explanation of the loud and long ovation might be the fact that there are no set pieces or “arias” to speak of – Strauss, clearly under the influence of Richard Wagner, keeps the music flowing constantly, with no pauses for applause, so that any enthusiasm on the part of the audience must wait until the conclusion of the work. But when it came, there was certainly a lot of it, and it must have cheered all concerned with the performance.
Strauss composed the music to a libretto of his own, a much shortened revision taken from a German translation by Hedwig Lachmann of Oscar Wilde’s French-language play. He said something to the effect that his ideal Salome would be a “16-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde.” This combination is quite impossible, and explains more than a century of sopranos who have wisely avoided the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” and the ones better equipped to present a visual approximation but who weren’t up to the music’s huge vocal challenges. The entire music-drama is a challenge – the score is a difficult but highly effective combination of a wide range of keys, extended tonality, chromaticism, odd modulations, periods of tonal ambiguity, and more. Much like Wagner’s great works, the music also contains “leitmotifs,” or short chords or melodies symbolic of certain characters, themes or emotions. Entire volumes and doctoral dissertations have been written on Strauss’ complex combination of all of the above.
While the work runs for less than two hours, the plot is rather complex. The story takes place around 30 A.D., at King Herod’s palace in Judea. Princess Salome is the daughter of Herodias and a brother of Herod, thus making her the King’s stepdaughter (and niece). The action is set on a terrace that includes the cistern in which Herod is holding John the Baptist (Jochanaan). Narraboth, captain of Herod’s guards (and possibly the only prominent character besides the prophet with whom it is possible to sympathize), is gazing through a passage into the palace, singing of the beauty of the Princess and his admiration of her, while she is seated at a banquet taking place within. A page of Herodias warns Narraboth that it is dangerous to stare at Salome, and is the first to fear that something terrible is about to take place. The voice of Jochanaan booms from the depths of the cistern about the coming of the Messiah, while two guards speak of the prophet’s gentle disposition and Herod’s fear and confusion over this possible “Man of God.” Salome, bored with Herod’s festivities and his lecherous, incestuous leering, suddenly appears on the terrace and expresses an interest in the prophet’s voice, which is now proclaiming damnation of her sinful mother. The guards refuse her request to bring the prophet up to her, but she works her wiles on Narraboth until he relents, and the ragged holy man is brought before her.
Salome recoils in fear at the sight of Jochanaan, but her fear turns to fascination with the prophet who refuses to look at her, and she begins to beg to touch his hair, his skin, his mouth. Narraboth, overwhelmed with fear and despair, stabs himself to death without Salome even bothering to notice, so enraptured is she with begging the holy man for a kiss. Jochanaan tells her to save herself by seeking the Messiah, before he disappears back into the depths of the cistern. Herod, followed by Herodias, emerges from the palace in search of the missing Salome. Slipping in Narraboth’s blood, he is seized with fear by the ill omen, and begins to complain of feeling a strong breeze that seems to be caused by the flapping of the wings of huge, ominous bird hovering over the palace. He joins the others who have feared that something terrible is about to happen. Herodias derisively dismisses his rantings, and insists that he return to the banquet with her. He calms at the sight of Salome, and attempts to lure her with offers of food and wine. Once again, Jochanaan’s voice wafts up from the unseen depths, cursing the sins of Herodias, who angrily insists that Herod turn him over to the Jews who have been asking for him for months. Herod refuses, and a chaotic argument ensues among the Jews, two Nazarenes discuss the miracles of the Messiah, and Herodias demands that the prophet’s insults be silenced, while Herod adds that he is appalled at the idea of raising the dead.
Greatly agitated by the chaos, Herod begs Salome to dance for him, as it will soothe his nerves. She refuses until he promises her anything she desires. Salome seizes the opportunity and says she will dance only if Herod swears to keep his word. He does so, and the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” begins. At its conclusion, Herod’s lascivious delight turns to horror when Salome demands the head of Jochanaan on a silver platter as her reward. He desperately offers her anything else, while Herodias laughs approvingly at her daughter’s cruel trick. Repeatedly, Salome demands that he keep his promise, until he collapses in despair, waving an executioner toward the cistern. When presented with her “reward,” the deranged princess sings to the head of Jochanaan as if he were still alive, and finally steals the kiss that he refused her in life. Herod’s lust quickly turns to disgust, and he commands that soldiers “Kill that woman,” as the story crashes to its conclusion and the stage is plunged into blackness.
It’s easy to imagine the commotion Salome caused when it was premiered in Dresden in December 1905. Gustav Mahler was refused permission to produce the opera in Vienna, and it was not heard there until 1918. It was resisted in London until 1910, and was heard once at the Metropolitan Opera in early 1907 before additional performances were immediately cancelled. It was not heard there again until 1934. Yet within a couple of years of its premiere, it was performed in over fifty theaters in Germany and elsewhere, and today is well established as a musical masterpiece. There are many studio recordings, the quintessential one probably being Decca’s 1961 version with Birgit Nilsson in the title role and Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
Antony Walker returned to the conductor’s podium last night, and did wonders with the immense and complex orchestration. There were possibly three brief, inconsequential slips in the orchestra, as the instrumentalists thundered or whispered the accompaniment by turns, with all sections giving of their best. Even in periods of tremendous volume, every slap of a tambourine, strumming of the harp or click of castanets rang out clearly. The tremendous climaxes were delivered with an overwhelming impressiveness, as were the delicate, hauntingly exotic quivering of strings. In the final scene, after Salome kisses Jochanaan’s severed head, the orchestration grows to a mighty climax, ending with a cadence of shocking dissonance. This moment has been described as “the most sickening chord in all opera.” But that was the composer’s intention, and Walker and his gifted players delivered it with remarkable accuracy. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” was exquisitely rendered.
Nearly all of the singers of the major roles made their Pittsburgh Opera debuts in the performance. Patricia Racette, known best for her interpretations of Puccini roles, sang the title part, one relatively new to her, as she has sung it only once before, earlier this year. She is not the 16-year-old Isolde of Strauss’ imagination (who possibly could be?), but has a sufficiently capable grasp on the demands of the stupendously difficult music. She displayed intelligence in keeping her voice in reserve as much as possible, because it was in the second part of Salome’s final soliloquy that she sounded her best. She did the infamous “dance” herself, with the assistance of a few of Attack Theatre’s male dancers. The choreography is odd and ineffective, and staged in a way that made the brief flash of total nudity seem gratuitous and forced. She is quite an attractive woman, capable of delivering the illusion of youth, and acted the part probably better than any other Salome the writer has seen. She may want to tone down her handling of her “reward,” since the weight of a human head accounts for about 10% of the body’s entire mass, and she tossed it around as if it were a skein of yarn.
Nmon Ford was another new face, singing and acting the role of the unfortunate Jochanaan. His baritone voice is a bit lyrical for the role, but the passages sung from the depths of the cistern were powerfully declaimed and seemed to be reverberating from deep below 7th Street. His singing done on the stage was a little less impressive, but effective to a degree in certain passages. Robert Brubaker, as Herod, sang and acted his role very realistically, and his performance made quite an impression on his first Pittsburgh Opera audience. Also making her local debut was mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens as Herodias. It is not an especially large singing part, but she displayed a rich voice of quality. Largely due to the staging of the opera, her acting of the part was somewhat restricted. But she made the listener wish to hear her in a more prominent role.
In the smaller roles, tenor Jonathan Boyd as Narraboth, and mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl as the Page of Herodias, stood out in the crowd, as did baritone Brian Vu as the Second Nazarene. The others adding to the production in smaller roles were Joseph Barron (First Soldier), Matthew Scollin (Second Soldier), Andy Berry (A Cappadocian and the Fifth Jew), Shannon Jennings (A Slave), Michael Papincak (First Jew), James Flora (Second Jew), Adam Bonanni (Third Jew), and Eric Ferring (Fourth Jew). These singing actors were a combination of members of the Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Program, both present and past, or newcomers altogether.
The single set was acceptably impressive, a wide stone staircase with flaming torches at the base of each side leading to the terrace, with a portion of the palace visible to the right, the cistern dead center. To the left a balcony rail looked out on a dark and cloudy sky and a gigantic moon. It appeared to be the dark side that was visible, perhaps an attempt to lend creative artistic license to the darkness of the plot. It seems that at some point in rehearsal, a lighting designer might notice that the people on the stage were casting shadows on the clouds and moon, and make adjustments to correct the problem, but this was not the case last night.
As a whole the production is a worthy one and holds together well, and this rare opportunity of hearing a German masterpiece should not be missed, as they come our way rarely, few and very far between. For tickets, cast biographies, and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.
Special thanks to Pittsburgh Opera for the two complimentary admissions.
The “Artistic Team” for Salome –
Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Andrew Sinclair; Set Designer, Boyd Ostroff; Costume Designer, Richard St. Clair; Lighting Designer, Andrew David Ostrowski; Wig & Make-up Designer, James Geier; Choreographer, Michele de la Reza of Attack Theatre; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight.
Photography: David Bachman