LA Opera’s new production of Salome by Richard Strauss creates a fascinating dramatic world based on a famous story from the Bible as well as the imaginings and genius of Oscar Wilde, punctuated with epic-sounding music and beautiful staging.
According to Biblical scripture, Salome was a young woman who pleased her stepfather King Herod with her dancing. The ruler, who was well gratified, therefore offered Salome anything she wanted. Salome’s allegiance was with her mother, a divorced woman who, according to John the Baptist (called Jochanaan in the opera), violated Moses’ law and who was therefore condemned by him. Salome asked her stepfather for John to be beheaded. The king reluctantly gave in. She then presented John the Baptist’s head to her mother.
Along came Oscar Wilde in the late 19th Century who wrote his play, Salome, which later became the libretto for Richard Strauss’ opera. Wilde’s basic plot points are based on the biblical version, only Wilde goes inside the characters and their motivations and fills in the blanks according to the dictates of his own colorful imagination. His Salome is a hot, persistent vixen who lusts after John the Baptist. She is used to getting the attentions of everyone at court and is spoiled rotten. When John rejects her advances, she keeps going after him until it is apparent to her that it is hopeless. But still she won’t give up.
The most juicy parts of the story, hence the opera, are her lusting for this hunk of a man. His skin is like ivory, his hair is like a birds nest, his lips are red. She must have him. Her primal want of him is full-on.
And as the story goes, her sensual dancing for her lust-filled stepfather is purely to get her way with John. The dancing is luscious and entices Herod. Yes, her mother wants John gone - but that is completely secondary to Salome’s great carnal desire and controlling, possessive nature.
The new production at LA Opera is filled with the excitement of Wilde’s story. Patricia Racette is a wonderful, masterful soprano who takes control of the stage. John / Jochanaan (Tomas Tomasson) is every bit as sexy as we could hope. The court is filled with sleazy, horny men - especially the tetrarch Herod, sung strongly by Allan Glassman, and the stars-in-his-eyes Narraboth, well loved by the audience, Issachah Savage, a relative newcomer. Gabriele Schnaut was wonderfully strong and harpyish as the conniving queen and mother of Salome.
This is all accomplished with one set with a full moon, a grand terrace scene, and a prison pit where John the prisoner crawls in and out at the end of a rope and without losing his dignity. Herod does not want to kill John, thinking him to be a man of God. When Herod proposes giving Salome alternative gifts, his suggestion of a veil from the temple brings on objections and an amusing quarrel among the Jewish men at court.
The Strauss music is dramatic and modern, at times startling in its boldness. This opera made quite a stir over the years and has been banned multiple times. A cultish Salome following has blossomed, and dancing sensually with the seven veils has become a thing in various generations since then.
But actually that thing is the primary missing piece in the otherwise fabulous LA Opera production. Patricia has sexy, long, black, wavy hair and wears sensuous clothes. She captures the adolescent petulance and curiosity of the never-denied young princess. She dances her heart out with the young men in her staged choreography. At the most startling moment, she disrobes in darkened lights but with my binoculars I could see the full frontal nudity from the back of the orchestra. And it was exciting.
But what is lacking is the true sensuality in their movements. The dancing is rather bouncy and feels more like modern dance or Broadway than the ancient Middle East. Except for the disrobing, the rest of the movement did not seem like a sexual turn-on. It must have had more juice in some of its earlier versions to stimulate the rash of Salome erotic dance lessons around the globe after the performances. Salome’s approach to John the Baptist in this incarnation is more like a spoiled child than a sensual woman. Her desire may have been obsessive, but it seemed to be coming as much from the challenge of getting something she couldn’t have than feeling the heat within.
Her playing with the head of John the Baptist, while a creepy, also reminded me of a young girl playing with a new toy. Herod found her actions horrifying. His lust for her turned to revulsion, and he had her murdered onstage.
There was one seeming glitch of this otherwise spectacular opera on opening night. At times the orchestra drowned out the singers. This was especially apparent in the opening numbers, although mostly allievated through the rest of the production.
As James Conlon, the conductor and music director, points out in his notes, although both Strauss and Mozart were at opposite ends of the 19th Century, Mozart was all about melody and true-love plots. In Strauss, love is twisted into obsessive longings and the music is not necessarily melodious, although more dramatic. In Conlon's opinion, Strauss is the ushering in of the modern age.
All in all, an iconic story and enactment, some profound music, and a lovely set make this a must-see production. Historically, the evolvution of the story as well as that of the music styles, adds to its fascination.
Photos by Larry Ho / LA Opera.
Georja Umano is an actress and animal advocate.
SCHEDULE FOR SALOME at LA OPERA
- Saturday February 25, 2017 07:30 PM BUY TICKETS
Thursday March 02, 2017 07:30 PM BUY TICKETS
- Sunday March 05, 2017 02:00 PM BUY TICKETS
- Thursday March 16, 2017 07:30 PM BUY TICKETS
Post-performance CD signing with Patrica Racette and James Conlon!
- Sunday March 19, 2017 02:00 PM BUY TICKETS