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S & H International Opera Review

Richard Strauss: Salome (new production premiere). Soloists, Metropolitan Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, The Metropolitan Opera, New York City, March 15th 2004 (BH)

 

Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Production: Jürgen Flimm
Set and Costume Designer: Santo Loquasto
Lighting Designer: James F. Ingalls
Choreographer: Doug Varone

Characters in order of vocal appearance:
Narraboth: Matthew Polenzani
The Page: Katharine Goeldner
First Soldier: Peter Volpe
Second Soldier: Richard Bernstein
Jochanaan: Albert Dohmen (Debut)
A Cappadocian: Andrew Gangestad
Salome: Karita Mattila
A Slave: Vanessa Cariddi (Debut)
Herod: Allan Glassman (replacing Siegfried Jerusalem)
Herodias: Larissa Diadkova
First Jew: Joel Sorensen (replacing Allan Glassman)
Second Jew: Roy Cornelius Smith
Third Jew: Adam Klein
Fourth Jew: John Easterlin (Debut)
Fifth Jew: LeRoy Lehr
First Nazarene: Morris Robinson
Second Nazarene: Charles Edwin Taylor

 

In all my years of attending performances at the Met, I have never encountered the kind of tumultuous roar that greeted Karita Mattila at her first curtain call, following her astounding triumph in the title role of Salome. Even after reading reports of her performance in Paris last fall, I was not prepared for her over-the-top courage last night, and as she emerged in a black robe from behind the curtain, the audience erupted into an ecstatic torrent of cheering and a hailstorm of bravas. Mattila not only possesses one of the world’s greatest instruments – a creamy soprano with enough power to sear like a laser beam – but is also one of the most uninhibited actresses to appear onstage in quite some time. Taking complete advantage of both, director Jürgen Flimm encouraged her to take some memorable risks, and among many comments I heard was one friend who said she had not seen this kind of physical performance at the house in years.

The role is problematic, since Salome is only supposed to be sixteen years old, and there is no way any adolescent singer, or even most non-adolescents, could meet the extreme vocal demands Richard Strauss places on his spoiled anti-heroine. So anyone attempting the role has the pressure not only to negotiate the singing pitfalls, but to convince the audience as best she can that she is a flirty, sexual, coy, immature teenager who whose desires are so unpredictable and lurid that even her own father has her destroyed.

Costumed in a champagne-colored backless dress, and with girlish waves of blonde hair, Mattila may not have physically looked sixteen, but was nevertheless entirely convincing with her keenly conceived image of the role. Whether in subtle gestures such as twirling her hair in boredom or absent-mindedly dangling a leg over a chair arm, or in bolder strokes such as casually kicking Narraboth out of her path after he dies – this was a performance that could be an object lesson in acting for the operatic stage.

I trust everyone in the audience caught her doing a perfect split at one point, seen on the roof of the structure housing Jochanaan. I’m sorry, but doing a split is not the territory of singers, or of most actors, but of dancers – and not even all of them can manage it. For a 43-year-old stage actress to be that limber in a Shakespeare play would be impressive. But for a 43-year-old soprano to show such agility, while faced with some of the most formidably treacherous vocals in all of opera is truly something out of the ordinary.

The demands of making the character convincing are mirrored in the score, which plays a similar tug-of-war with one’s allegiance. The desire to surrender to the music is tempered by the knowledge of exactly what one is surrendering to, since some of Strauss’ most rapturous inspirations accompany some of the most disgusting depictions of fetishistic necrophilia. In the final scene, Mattila is sprawled on her stomach on the floor, gazing at Jochanaan’s head in her hands and lustily mashing her lips all over it. As the music rises, she releases the head and rolls over on her back in ecstasy, after what is clearly a sexual climax.

As Narraboth and almost unrecognizable in a huge turban, Matthew Polenzani was wonderful in a role that seems far too short when someone with talent is singing. Tonight he was spectacular and then some. In his Met debut, Albert Dohmen was imposing as the doomed Jochanaan, projecting an ominous presence from inside the stage. The fine singer Siegfried Jerusalem, scheduled as Herod, was unfortunately ill and out for the evening, but his replacement was Allan Glassman, whose eyes glazed with horror said it all, and he did a more than marvelous job on short notice.

Also excellent was Larissa Diadkova, who sailed through Herodias dressed in a dark velvety green, one of Santo Loquasto’s many effective takes on "desert contemporary." As Herod pleaded in vain not to carry out Salome’s impetuous, horrifying request, Diadkova taunted him, mocking his dilemma and not incidentally, showing where her daughter received her training.

Amid the bravos for the production team, some jeers could be heard in the audience; I vote firmly with the former crowd in admiration for the lyrical, I think downright beautiful set that in many cases offered Mattila and everyone else in the cast some interesting movement options (like that split). The brilliant Loquasto offered us Herod’s palace as a round platform of clear Lucite, gleamingly lit from underneath, with chairs and tables scattered about and a spiral staircase in the center disappearing down below, perhaps a luxury oasis just outside of Jerusalem, built by Donald Trump.

Encircling the Lucite floor is a high wall of red and orange mosaic tile, lit with wall sconces, with a large staircase encircling the room’s high walls and used to dramatic effect as Salome enters for the Dance of the Seven Veils. The edge of the palace juts right out into a sea of sand dunes, carved from massive waves of plywood by someone who perhaps admires Frank Gehry. At the edge of the desert, just to the right of the palace is the cistern, looking here like a jagged, open wound in the ground, with a creaky wooden apparatus housing a hand-crank to raise and lower the cage housing the prophet Jochanaan.

My only puzzlement in Jürgen Flimm’s otherwise stellar direction was the recurring presence of a group of black-clad figures with angel wings in the upper right corner – first one, then three, then seven or eight – slowly, constantly assembling, shifting about and disbanding at the top of the sand dunes. I thought they might be the palace guards, or angels of death, but neither seemed to be the case. And one staging quibble: if I recall, the final scene has Salome killed as a group of soldiers descends upon her. Here, as Salome lies exhausted, a lone soldier slowly approaches her, drawing his sword as the curtain falls. Impressions can change in the days after seeing a thrilling production like this one, but somehow the single warrior seemed anticlimactic.

In an interview prior to the premiere, Mattila said she prepared for the Dance of the Seven Veils by dancing around her hotel room, listening to music of Bruce Springsteen and Tina Turner. How many contemporary opera stars would confess to such homework? As the brilliantly orchestrated sequence began, with Mattila extending a leg over the top of the staircase, she seemed to slide her way down in sinuous abandon. I wasn’t crazy about her costume for this sequence, only because the pants and jacket abruptly telegraphed "43-year-old-woman" and the illusion of adolescence seemed to evaporate. But never mind. As the dance progressed, with two gentlemen in black tie tugging her pants off with their teeth, Mattila’s erotic determination only increased as she sat down and placed her buttocks squarely in Herod’s lap, squirming against his crotch before another layer of clothing came off and found her in a black bustier and short silk slip. If anything, she seemed almost more comfortable with her impending nakedness, the onlookers as hypnotized as Herod by the pornographic proceedings.

Gergiev and the orchestra seemed positively infused with the magnificent score, immersing themselves and us in Strauss’ huge walls of sound colored with some marvelous effects. During the final scene, over a low tremolo come a series of razor-sharp notes that I never realized were written not for violin or cello, but for double bass playing a harmonic high up the string almost near the bridge. And of course there’s that obsessive flute trill that seems to go on forever. The Met’s brilliant musicians, perhaps partially eclipsed on what they must have sensed was an historic evening, nevertheless brought out all the weird colors everywhere.

In the final scene, as Mattila writhed onstage and let her voice pour out over Loquasto’s desert, the rest of the emotionally devastated cast was scattered about the palace grounds dazed, seemingly semi-conscious. As Salome makes love to Jochanaan’s head, Strauss gives her some of his most sublime, soaring and climactic vocal lines (which Mattila traversed with complete, effortless control) as if to say, the Universe itself nods in approval at your ridiculous, embarrassing, wretchedly subhuman desires.

Whatever one’s interpretation, no doubt the Universe also approves of a performance like this one – a history-making beacon that will be no doubt be considered something of a benchmark for a very long time.

Bruce Hodges

 


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