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.