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S & H Opera Review

The Met’s Salome Revisited by Bruce Hodges

(See main review for credits and cast)

 

After seeing this production four times (plus the radio broadcast), I wanted to follow-up with some additional musings, since this powerful two hours will probably be discussed (and debated) for years. At least one notable casting change caused some attention: at the March 31 performance Bryn Terfel assumed the role of Jochanaan. Although Albert Dohmen was marvelous in his debut, Terfel wielded even more power, and seemed to be a bit nastier character, almost a beast in ropes and chains, wrestling around more with Mattila.

Further praise for choreographer Doug Varone, whose vivid and exceptionally well-conceived Dance of the Seven Veils is one of the evening’s highlights. After Herod agrees to let her dance, the sequence begins with Mattila dramatically dashing up Santo Loquasto’s huge curving staircase to prepare. A few minutes later, when she reappears at the top of the steps, she is wearing the soon-to-be-shed creamy tuxedo. The next thing we see is one of her legs draped over the edge, followed by a long hot pink scarf that cascades over the side. With only ten minutes’ music to work with, Varone teasingly escalates the action, with Mattila being carried aloft by two men before they almost devour her tuxedo pants. Later she dances down the wooden planks covering the cistern, where she does a brief turn with one of the poles holding up the roof. As the music quiets down in its final minute or so, Mattila removes her top, gracefully facing the rear of the stage, but slyly looking back at Herod as if to gauge his reaction. (During the performances the audience has been impressively silent, albeit perhaps glued to their binoculars.) Near the end she folds her hands in front of her breasts and slowly turns to face Herod, before the furious final few bars when she finally flings her hands open, pulls down her slip and stands joyously naked, before being swallowed up by a crowd who covers her with a black robe.

Since we’re discussing nudity, a slight change was made at the very end of the opera – different from opening night – as the executioner slowly approaches the dazed Salome lying on her back on the floor. In the initial ending, as the orchestra hammered out the last decisive chords, the curtain fell as Mattila remained prone, seemingly unaware of her fate. But in the latest performances she staggered to her feet, and seeing what is to come, turns to face the audience and on the final chord, pulls her shirt open, almost baring her breasts again. I must confess I liked the scene better in its initial version.

Another writer noted that the production would probably improve as the run continues, and certainly that has certainly been the case. Valery Gergiev and the Met Orchestra play this score so sensuously that one could almost – repeat, almost – close one’s eyes and just bask in the music solely as a concert. Almost overlooked amid Mattila’s triumph is the orchestra’s stupendous excitement in the Seven Veils, and in the astonishing instrumental sequences on either side of Jochanaan’s ascent and departure. Little details stand out everywhere, such as when Herodias mocks Herod for offering peacocks to Salome and the trumpets rise up with raucous braying, replicating the birds’ harsh cries.

Siegfried Jerusalem, who was ill for the first two performances, did a fine job and surely did not deserve the few scattered catcalls here and there. If Allan Glassman seemed even more at ease as Herod, my hunch is that Mattila’s fervent risk-taking is undoubtedly encouraging everyone onstage to do the same.

The set continues to amaze, although I seem to be in the minority. At the end of the March 31 performance a resounding "boo" immediately after the curtain fell made this clear. But a friend who loves Morocco found much to adore in Loquasto’s red-enamel tiled walls, cerulean sky and bleached tan desert dunes ingeniously made from nothing more than carefully cut particle board. The transparent, lighted palace floor could be the rooftop of a luxury building in Marrakech, and contrasts sharply with the grime and creakiness of the cistern. The angels of death – and clearly that is what they are – assembling and disassembling in the upper right corner of the stage may seem superfluous, but they don’t particularly detract, either.

James F. Ingalls’ lighting design is also quite extraordinary. In the Dance of the Seven Veils, some discreet ultraviolet lamps gleam upward from below the clear Lucite floor – lurid on their own, but also giving a bit of unearthly luster to the costume as Mattila performs. And then at the end of the entire evening, following the final scene when "clouds obscure the moon," daybreak seems to appear, as if the sun has come up after a long night of horror and degradation, and the palace’s inhabitants are slowly regaining consciousness, perhaps a bit hung over and not knowing quite what has happened to them. The effect is quite subtle, and also beautifully enhances Mattila’s stunning agility in the huge vocal arcs during the final tableau.

As a bit of homework to accompany all this, I listened to a number of recordings of the Final Scene, with Leontyne Price, Leonie Rysanek and Ljuba Welitsch (two versions), plus Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in the Dance of the Seven Veils. I also like Inge Nielsen’s recent complete recording with Michael Schønwandt and the Royal Danish Opera Orchestra on Chandos. Without sticking a toe in the "great singers of the past vs. the present" argument, let me say that I like each of these for different reasons. Ms. Price may have a slight edge, in sheer vocal heft and in recorded sound quality, but some of this is just personal preference, and both Rysanek and Welitsch have incredible personality, in a role that devours personality like a sponge. Of the two Welitsch recordings, the one on "The Complete Columbia Recordings" seems more mesmerizing, with a cleaner orchestral sound (from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) and the great Fritz Reiner in urgent, towering form. And to return to the current star, Mattila is in fine company with any of these.

Von Karajan’s coruscating Seven Veils emphasizes the work’s virtuosic orchestral effects. But I doubt anyone would complain about Schønwandt’s version, either, which is equally well paced and superbly recorded. Some listeners have called this sequence "cheap music," and I suspect they are transferring their feelings about the content – what is happening onstage – to the music itself. The paradox here is that Strauss wrote some pretty glorious stuff, to accompany the opera’s surfeit of swinish, not to mention ghastly behavior. The subject matter may be "cheap" but the music certainly is not.

All in all, the past few weeks have been glorious, seeing a bit of opera history materializing before my eyes, and I am happy to report that some of these evenings were videotaped, presumably for a televised broadcast or DVD release. Also, apparently Mattila has revealed she will return to the Met in 2007 to reprise the role. Make your travel plans now.

Bruce Hodges

 

 

 


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