Cher Public

Dancing lady

The saying goes that you can’t go home again, and in many ways this is a truth. I entered the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday night for LA Opera’s 30 year old revival of their production of Salome with a combination of enthusiasm and apprehension. 

Originally directed by Sir Peter Hall and designed by John Bury, it had been the first unqualified hit that LA Opera produced in its premiere season. Oh sure they brought up the curtain (eventually…and there’s a story) with Domingo in Otello but what were the chances of that failing? Maria Ewing was an artist held in high regard, and a Mélisande nearly without peer, but her venturing this deep into soprano territory with Strauss’ salacious shocker had people reaching for their smelling salts.

It was a triumph. One that traveled to many theaters including Chicago, San Francisco, and Covent Garden where it was filmed in revival in 1992. It surely remains one of the great interpretations of this role and when I saw it live, my first Salome no less, it was a corker and left me devastated.

So with these ghosts looming large I tucked in and said a prayer to the opera gods which, in retrospect, was unnecessary. From 2001 to 2006 we had Kent Nagano as our Principal Conductor and then Music Director and in that brief time Richard Strauss was a regular visitor here with productions of Rosenkavalier (directed by Maximilian Schell), Ariadne auf Naxos and a magnificent revival of David Hockney’s Die frau ohne schatten that was magic. James Conlon, now in his 10th year at LA Opera as Music Director, had yet to conduct any Strauss here until Saturday night. I will say now that it was well worth the wait.

The eighty-four players teeming in the pit sent the air shimmering and shaking with all the leitmotifs and bombast. Conlon’s guidance was sovereign from that first upward glissando right through to the last bash of the horns and the kettle drum. He constantly nurtured full, rich, playing and kept a diaphanous sheen over the early part of the evening. Slow building on the ravings and eventual appearance of Jochanaan, by the time of the prophet’s condemnation of Salome the orchestra was roaring.

Casting priorities had obviously been based on beauty of voice and expression and it was a pleasure to hear singers of the highest quality even in the smallest roles. The first example of this was Issachah Savage as Narraboth whose strong dulcet tenor perfectly conveyed the mystery and mood in the opening. He was also exceptional in his mounting anxiety as the Judean Princess’ behavior spiralled out of control. Beside him Katarzyna Sadej brought a boyish and dusky mezzo steeped in poignancy to her role as the frustrated Page who is powerless to prevent her best friends self-destruction.

Another standout was the luxury casting of Kihun Yoon as the First Nazarene. Mr. Yoon is a member of the Young Artists Program here at LA Opera and his Sharpless was one of the high points of our recent Butterfly. He brought his large, warm, voice to enlighten his lines about the work of Jesus locally and it had the requisite effect of holding the action still for those moments.

A very lively quintet of Jews, led with precision by Rodell Rosel, enlivened the proceedings and managed the difficult task of bringing their tricky music off with ease without ever falling into unwanted farce.

Meanwhile the Herods were a particularly intense pair. The venerable Alan Glassman proved beyond doubt that his role needn’t be barked and brayed out into the theater like some barnyard animal loose from its pen. I kept wracking my brain to remember the name of the only other Herod I could recall who truly sang the role, and it was when the Met mounted their last new production. Coming home to my research it was, indeed, Alan Glassman then too and that was 2004 my friends! I could venture a guess at Mr. Glassman’s age but I’d rather see the painting in his attic. His Tetrarch is a tremendous creation. Not only truly sung, when nearly all the others resort to sprecht-singing, but easily commanding the stage and always clear in his motives.

The Herodias of Gabriele Schnaut was a slightly different matter. While she was dramatically alert, and I would expect nothing less from one of the greatest Ortruds in living memory, only the very top of the voice seemed to be in working order. You don’t need a gallon-jug contralto per se but it’s fun when you have as much character in the voice as the actor portraying her. The only other problem was that the new costume designs of Sara Jean Tosetti made her look like a tarted up Brunnhilde from a Folies Bergere divertissement. That said, she was a mistress of the arched eyebrow all evening long and played no one’s fool.

The role of Jochanaan is a fearsome assignment and Icelandic baritone Tómas Tómasson brought dignity along with great reserves of full tone to his pronouncements of wrath. His interview with Salome showed him uselessly bolstering himself against his disgust of the Judean courtiers and in particular the princess herself as they belittled him physically, even having Salome lead him around by his rope at one point. He unleashed mountains of voice at the great climaxes and clearly relished the part.

Bury’s set remains, after lo these many years, a model of style and illusion, a Klimt and Beardsley melange with a glass and golden rococo palace door stage left. a marble terrace floor in a fluid black and white pattern surrounded the cistern upstage right with a circular stair crawling up one side. The garden backdrop of cypress trees and oversized palms and dandelions appeared as through a frosted glass. Effects of moon and clouds and lighting were effectively arranged by Duane Schuler.

After 30 years we obviously needed new costumes and especially since the first set were so specific to the original cast. The new designs are uncommonly handsome with a lot of metallic fabrics. Yet they all have a vaguely Hollywood Babylon feel to them, which while not inappropriate, weren’t as characterful as their predecessors. The greatest departures were the flowing sullied robes for Jochanaan where Michael Devlin had originally worn only a loincloth and a new set of ensembles for our Salome, Patricia Racette, that found her sleek in silken pants and tunic.

I’ll admit freely that I was more than trepidacious about Ms. Racette as Strauss’ Judean Princess for a number of reasons. She overcame nearly all of them in a characterization that painted her as athletic tomboy and then angry bully once she was spurned by the Baptist rather than lovelorn maiden driven mad with sexual desire. This was a clear departure from the original production, abetted by new director David Paul.

Ms. Racette’s Salome was full of youth and energy as she leapt about the stage. Vaulting herself up to the lip of the cistern, jumping onto tables, and dangling her exposed legs inside the barred hatch to tease Jochanaan, she shamelessly coaxed Narraboth and Her assisted, aided by four danseurs and excellently choreographed by Peggy Hickey, found her lifted up over heads and falling back into arms from heights while commanding enormous flowing silk veils. With scrupulous planning, excellent lighting and not a little bravery, she went right down to the naughty for the climax.

Once her prize was delivered to her then her aggression ramped up even further. Unlike most sopranos who stagger under the weight of the head Ms. Racette carried it by its hair and swung it around, holding it high over her head in victory. Deliciously deluded when she finally kissed the mouth, once, twice, and disappointed that nothing happened.

Vocally she was very near the ideal as her basic tone already has a girlish quality. While the upper reaches of the voice aren’t opulent, she was tireless and completely secure in a role that requires the utmost in acumen and technique. She also had some magnificent moments at the very bottom of her range and her “des Todes” in the final scene was goose-bump inducing.

There are more surprises but I don’t want to spoil the fun of this fearless and (almost) new Salome.

  • QuantoPainyFakor

    “Ms. Racette carried it by its hair and swung it around, holding it high over her head in victory.” That must have been quite a sight. Was there blood streaming out of it?

    • PATRICK MACK

      Thanks goodness the head was damp but not dripping.

      I’m suddenly picturing kiosks in the lobby of the Dorothy Chandler selling clear plastic ponchos and the first five rows of orchestra seating designated as ‘Splash Zone’ like at SeaWorld.

      Oh. The horror!

      • Camille

        They should sell plastic heads in the foyer-
        “Get a Head with Salome!”

        So ran the slogan for the Seattle Opera ca. early 1970’s, and it got butts in seats.

  • aulus agerius

    I can see why Issachah Savage withdrew from his Der Freischutz with VA Opera (which just ended Sunday) when he had the chance to be in this!

  • Camille

    Guessing she had a “voice lift” since we heard her in the same opera here in December, or maybe, the Pavilion just suits her voice better. God knows, I heard Dame Gwyn give a wobble-less performance there in Die Frau ohne Schatten, to my AMAZED delight--so--anything is
    Possible.

    At present moment, it happens I’m listening to
    a Leonie Rysanek SallyMay from 1977--and I suddenly realized she’s about the same age as Patricia Racette--interesting they should both take on this difficult role at this age. I guess Herbie von K gave Rysanek a cattle prodding to go ahead with it as he apparently told her ‘what are you waiting for--you’re not getting any younger!’ , or something somewhat similaly diplomatic.

    Astrid Varnay is doing her Monster Mommy now
    so I have to go listen: Ragnar Ulfung, Kenneth Riegel and Norman Bailey as the man who preaches too much and loses his Kopf make up the remainder of a fine cast.

    I’ll give a heads up later.

    • PATRICK MACK

      My Dear Camille, I’m actually getting the ’72 Rysanek from Vienna with Bohm delivered today because it piqued my interest. I loved that Frau production although I didn’t see La Dame Gwyneth but the latter revival. I did see her in Fanciulla with the Placebo and her High C in Act I kicked me all the way through puberty.

      • Camille

        Yes, it was a kicker, I’ll admit, but although she made a courageous Minnie, it was a little TOO yang and not enough yin for me. No doubt she was capable of table wrestling the entire bar and winning, too. She was one hell of a stage animal and am grateful to have nabbed the few performances I did, wobble or not.

        Well, aside from a couple of notes out of whack and a yelped B on a “Nichts in der Welt”, It was pretty much vintage Leonie. She even managed to convince me she wasn’t past fifty, a mighty feat. One wonders if she performed La Valse?The Schlußszene sounded maybe the best of all. Interesting cast. Also fun was The Varnay Cackle. Leonie will doubtless be in much fresher voice and more “on” in Wien and five years earlier and with her dear Dr. Böhm.

        An aside: I cannot forget what your Mother did for you as I can well imagine the response I would have had in not terribly dissimilar circumstances: “get in there and practice the piano some more
        and forget about that sh#t!”

        You were lucky, PM, mighty lucky. Say hello to Dotty’s Pavilion and the wonderful new Disney Hall for me--I miss home and I always shall, but—

      • Dan Patterson

        I saw Dame Gwyneth sing FANCIULLA in Los Angeles, and that high C was the biggest single note I ever heard anyone sing, and I grew up on the great Birgit. It made my head ring. I was long past puberty, so maybe it kicked me into middle age.

        • Camille

          Did you, too? Maybe we should have a tee shirt printed up saying “I heard Dame Gwyneth’s high C in The Girl and LIVED!” That reminds me of a review Bernheimer wrote on this production about emitting “paint-peeling” sounds, haha!!

          That reminds me, I heard the first two acts of the visiting London production in 1984 on the plazacast outside the Pavilion of Turandot with Dame Gwyn! For some reason don’t remember the third act: maybe I passed out in the heat and in the sea of high C’s, or maybe I left. Her Turandot was a fierce diva turn if ever I heard one, my god!

          • Dan Patterson

            Yes, it surely was! I saw it in London (Serban production) and later at the Met.(Zefferelli) and she was magnificent. I saw her three Brunnhildes and Kundry, too. She was always exciting, and I never seemed to notice the wobble that much. Thanks!

            • Camille

              Yes, there is a famous night at the MET in which she sang the Siegfried Brünnhilde wherein it all came together miraculously and worked—no wobble,
              All gloriousness. I wasn’t there but half
              of parterre seems to have been.

              Like I said, I never saw her a lot but she was always dead serious and “ON”
              and a total pro. Her appearance in that film out a few years ago about retired old show folks in a home was great good Gwynnie, still game. She is also very good in that epic bio from England on the life of Richard Wagner, in which she plays Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld. In the nineties she had a road show she used to tour in, “O, Malvina!” She must have been channeling her!

              A great dame, for absolute certain.

    • Rosina Leckermaul

      Actually I was impressed with Racette’s Salome at the Met in December. Maybe I went in expecting very little. I didn’t expect such a committed theatrical performance form her. Vocally she certainly surpassed the past two Salomes I have heard live (Michael and Denoke).

      • Camille

        Yes, she’s always better in person and I know that full well, but the vibrato is too much for me now.

        For that reason and because I will not
        miss Alagna as Cyrano for ANYthing—I’m praying that she will be all right in May. Maybe French will help her anyway: I don’t recall so much vibrato in the Carmélites, but that was years ago now. (Her turn as Blanche, that is, not Madame Lidoine.)

        Oh, and next to Michael --well, there is nothing worse than her singing. Acting and dancing okay but repugnant, but “singing”--niemals Tochter Sodoms!!!

    • QuantoPainyFakor
      • Camille

        Oh thank you so much! I taped an interview between she and that wonderful Mr. Jellinek in the late nineties but haven’t any idea where it is now. This must be somewhat after her Salome heard today. Very kind.

        • QuantoPainyFakor

          Here is a playlist of thirteen of the Jellinek “Vocal Scene” programs, all worth saving.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lP4VBNIBEho&list=PLP-vgpj3jB0m7EFs01imUlfofyjQ64hpd

          • Camille

            Thank you so very much. It’s a gift.

            This is so kind and so appreciated, for they don’t make them like Mr. Jellinek anymore. He was always a gentleman.

            Until I heard him say that Don Carlo was his favorite Verdian opera I was too shy to voice the same opinion. Once I heard him make this statement, I felt that perhaps my judgment wasn’t so far afield afterall, and it emboldened me to say it out loud and proud.

            Don Carlo(s) is My Favorite Verdian Opera!”

            Thanks, Mr. Jellinek.

            • QuantoPainyFakor

              ‘Tis you, chère Camille, who give all of us gifts by your presence here.
              George and his wife (not sure if she’s still living) were lovely people. His book, “History Through the Opera Glass” is worth owning.
              https://www.amazon.com/History-Through-Opera-Glass-Napoleon/dp/0879102845

            • Camille

              Your kindness is very greatly appreciated and has shed some light.
              I am hoping Mr. Jellinek should not be forgotten and that a few persons,
              YOUNG, will make their acquaintance with him as he has an great deal to offer. There will not be another quite like him.

              You are so kind and this has considerably brightened my day.
              Thank you once again, and always. I
              do not know that my presence adds anything here but I DO know that Musik
              ist die Heilige Kunst, and my love for it is boundless.

            • QuantoPainyFakor

              and, sadly, such love is unreciprocated!

            • Camille

              Nicht doch!

            • Damianjb1

              It’s mine too. All five acts of it.

  • Camille

    As well, Patrick, it was quite surprising to hear that the formidable Schnaut, who started as a mezzosoprano more than 30, 35 years ago had only the TOP notes left. That is unusual, but then, she was always unusual. She’s the winner of the Loudest Liebestod on record. I was convinced Tristan would wake up and tell her to stop hollering.

    • PATRICK MACK

      I saw her sing Isolde too years and years ago in San Francisco and I remember her being good and loud and maybe not very poetic. My mother sends you her best by the way. I shared your comments with here last time and tonight when we happened to have dinner. She was touched by your kind words.

      • Camille

        Not at all. And that’s really so sweet, and appreciated, likewise.

        It was the fact she chose to use her grocery money that so impressed me. For a single working mother, that’s a hard choice. That she made it, to instead feed your mind and soul, took some actual discernment and real courage on her part. And that forty dollars has paid off in unimaginable dvidends that continue to go on reaping benefits to this day.

        It took wisdom+discernment+sacrifice+a good heart, to add it all up, and that’s not going to happen all that often with single Moms, fraught as their lives so often are.

        PAX—!

  • Solovyov

    Who directed the production?

    • fletcher

      David Paul.

  • fletcher

    Great review, Patrick. Saturday night was a lot of fun; I was a bit drunk, sitting behind C Koelsch, trying not to sing along. I’ve loved Salome as long as I’ve loved opera and this is perhaps the first time that LAO has programmed something I LOVE since I moved here in 2005, except maybe the Bluebeard of a years ago. It’s been twelve years since the last Strauss opera -- I was beginning to worry that Conlon had something personal against the composer. The orchestra was in really fine form -- all those weird pizzicato undercurrents well-pronounced -- but I felt some lack of character from the winds, and they have so much to do in this score. Conlon remains the best part of LAO -- too bad he’s saddled with so much workaday programming -- when will we hear his Berlioz or his Berg? Savage and Glassman were really as good as it gets, vocally, though I feel like the music warrants a little more attention to Narraboth’s suicide than was demonstrated onstage. Tómasson’s performance was a bit dry and shouty for me, but it’s a declamatory role anyway so it wasn’t much of a problem; the amplification when he was offstage was unfortunately awkwardly balanced. Great if short performances from Yoon and Theo Hoffman as the Nazarenes. Racette sounded much better than she did on the Met broadcast a few months ago -- there’s a strong vibrato but the notes are secure. The timbre reminded me most of Goltz on the Krauss recording. Most of all, she was absolutely committed to the role in the way we don’t see a lot of in LA -- the norm seems to be competent but safe performances for all principals, and here she was running, rolling, leaping, slinking behind the raised grate of the dungeon. She embodied the spoiled insouciance of the princess, the juvenile flightiness (“EW, not your hair… but your MOUTH!”), the entitled stubbornness. The dance was, unfortunately, pretty terribly choreographed, and the costume swaps on either end of it poorly staged and basically pointless (she slipped out of a slinky blue pantsuit into a … slinky purple pantsuit?). I thought she lost vocal energy in the final scene, but Conlon picked up the momentum and kept it taut to the end. Unfortunate staging of the execution, as neither Salome nor Herodias seemed to mind much as the soldiers gathered around and raised their swords. Poor Nick Brownlee’s prop flew off the hilt and landed somewhere in the pit, causing the audience to giggle at the worst possible instant. Oh well. Best night at the opera I’ve had in a while.

    • Camille

      Maestro Conlon’s “Voices” (hidden or lost or something) is definitely now a thing of the past and ditched? Rather than that expensive Ring, they might have done better to have expanded that series as it was interesting and fairly unique here in the States. Maybe he feels as if R. Strauss gets enough attention as it is? Don’t know who programs so maybe it’s someone else’s choices?

      • fletcher

        I think so. Pretty sad that ten years ago LA Opera was able to present a season of Judas Maccabaeus, Tristan, La Rondine, Otello, Jenufa, Fidelio, & Der Zwerg/Der zerbrochene Krug

        I have no real insight on who’s responsible for the dreary programming decisions at LAO. Koelsch seems committed to contemporary works, even if they are mostly chamber pieces at REDCAT (Akhnaten a glorious exception). Conlon for his part seems to show enthusiasm for Britten and Janacek but apparently gets little traction. Domingo I imagine has more to do with casting (himself, mostly). The board is mostly ancient hill-people. It’s tough to do much when you’re only mounting six big productions per year, and half of those have to be tentpole Verdi/Puccini/Mozart/Carmen to keep the lights on; we end up with mixed bags like the upcoming Contes (yay!) with Grigolo and Damrau (finally!)…. conducted by PD (…zzz) and directed by Marta (…zzzzzz…). I called to ask what version of the score they’re using and no one knew what the hell I was talking about.

        • Camille

          hahahaha!!! “and no one knew what the hell I was talking about.” yeah, sure. There are so many editions at any rate. I stand at Juilliard every so often and pick up one then another and then put the whole mess of them down and wait for The Mythical Kaye Version!

          That office sure knows how to ask for your $$$, though, and are not shy at all about doing so. You know, they have to keep it basic there as there’s no general opera going public other than a few enlightened souls, a few classical music nerds, some USC and UCLA music students, (and several other colleges, universities) and some of West L.A. When I was again there in the early nineties, I tried like hell to talk some Hispanic friends and acquaintances into seeing El Gato Montes, and they looked at me like “Who, what, where, what, huh?”. Not much interest, even with big stars (Domingo/Villaroël/Diaz) and a good production.

          And I’m sorry to have missed that Der Zwerg/Der zerbrochene Krug, as I was there at the time, and I WAS curious about it, but totally obsessed by work and impossible to get to everything. It was a brave effort on the part of Conlon, who gets not a lot of love and I really don’t understand why, especially after hearing some of the routiniers I have here at the MET.

          The things I lost which stung the most were the Bill Viola-driven Esa-Pekka conducted Tristan und Isolde‘s in three parts — due to absolutely ironclad circumstance, I was unable to see any of those and much to my eternal regret. At that time Brewer was in prime estate and it would have possibly been a wonderful outing of T&I. Then, I missed it here in NYC. Sometimes, you just can’t catch what you want no matter what you do or how high you reach.

          Too bad I never made it to REDCAT, as I would have liked to, but REALITY intervened, as it was.

          Get your Oscar tux shined up for this weekend, I believe! Give my regards to Hollywood!

          • fletcher

            You know, I don’t think “you have to keep it basic” at all -- LA has a huge and very sophisticated audience that turns up at concerts, plays, fashion shows, dance performances, gallery openings, etc. The crowd at the Phil is often young and hip, especially when there’s a visual installation component. Shows at REDCAT and things put on by Yuval Sharon’s Industry, though smaller in scale, are always well-attended, and the crowd skews younger. As with most companies, I imagine, LAO has to figure out how to create *sustained* appeal to young artsy types (future patrons) without alienating rich old people (or the sort of people who want to go to the opera because it’s “a fancy night out”). Akhnaten, Ghosts of Versailles, Einstein on the Beach, and the Barrie Kosky Dido/Bluebeard double bill were all efforts in the right direction. I personally wish there was more emphasis on creative productions of “modern” works (1910-1950), the last of which was Gezeichneten in 2009 (!), beyond the Bartók. No Strauss, Berg, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Ravel, Poulenc, Janacek… Meanwhile LA Phil is doing Nixon in China and Young Caesar, Long Beach is doing The Perfect American, the Industry is presenting a new opera about Galileo by Andy Akiho… the audience is there, they just haven’t been given enough to care about.

            • Camille

              Aha! I see what you are saying and where you’re heading with this and, I have got to say, this is Good News as it’s about time!

              Things were, aside from the Philharmonic, a pretty stuffy stasis for what seemed decades, so I’ve got stuck in a rut of feeling nothing will ever change. Funnily enough, I guess I’d be happier there now but doubt I’ll return. Too bad for me but good for you, haha!

              Thank you for updating me and letting me(us) know.

            • fletcher

              See also this these two Alex Ross pieces, neither of which I saw mentioned here.

            • Camille

              Hey thanks, fletcher, again.
              It’s nice to get an update on HOME.

              I didn’t think it would EVER change--for decades it was like unto a mass of immoveable granite.