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S & H International Opera Review

STRAUSS, Salomé, Opera National de Paris, September 23, 2003 (FC)


Salomé as Lolita is not a new directorial concept but its effective use on the Opéra Bastille stage adds an extra measure of horror to this opera that scandalized Europe in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s provocative play about the teenage Babylonian princess and her fatal attraction for John the Baptist, Richard Strauss composed his first big hit and the first of his many great soprano roles. The acclaimed Finnish soprano Karita Mattila plays with her hair, bites her nails and pulsates with pubescent sexuality in Lev Dodin’s masterful staging.

This is only the latest triumph for Mattila, singing this role for the first time, whose career has exploded in the last decade. Earlier Strauss and Janacek heroines in New York, Salzburg and Paris have made her one of the most in-demand dramatic sopranos and her tall good looks and theatrical talent has given her work with the top stage directors. Her clear, refulgent voice can easily cut through whatever Strauss can throw from the pit. It is, however, her abilities to inhabit a role that make her special. Clenching her fists, her insistent, petulant demand for the head of John the Baptist was an unsettling high point of the evening. She manages the famous Dance of the Seven Veils herself, with discrete movements suggesting "sexed up" Martha Graham. At the end, bottom half nude, she falls to the floor. In a clever theatrical touch, her mother, the Queen, rushes to cover her with the golden robe she was wearing. Salomé wears this until the final curtain.

The first new production of the Opéra de Paris this season – the final one for Hugues Gall – it was meant to show off the company and its chief conductor, James Conlon, who is also leaving after this season. Casting was unusually strong with the powerful baritone, Falk Struckmann, singing a commanding Jochanaan and tenor Chris Merritt with a strongly sung Herodes (King Herod) – a role that is more that often barked. A key role in the opera and more often barked than sung Merritt gives added dimension to the agonized King, reeling between sanity and madness.

As Salomé’s mother, the Queen Herodias, opera legend Anja Silja was indisposed opening night and was replaced by the sturdy, dark Swiss Mezzo, Julia Juon. The talented young American tenor William Burden was an unusually handsome and intense Narraboth. Conlon conducted his talented band with care for balances and voices, avoiding the excesses that other conductors are often unable to resist.

There was not much to look at on stage. David Borovsky’s décor is minimal and unobtrusive but gracefully lit by Jean Kalman. There is no cistern and Jochanaan is imprisoned in a narrow cage that projects out from the wall when he is onstage. Salomé, drawn to the prophet, sometimes climbs on the bars like it was a jungle gym. The old theatrical genie, Lev Dodin, moved his characters about with a fine sense of drama and infused the whole evening with a heightened sense of passion and dread. Along with the top cast assembled for the occasion, you are not likely to see a better production any time soon.

Frank Cadenhead


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