Monday, December 12, 2016

Salome as a Normalized Monster

Richard Strauss’s Salome
Metropolitan Opera
December 8, 2016

Salome reels her crazy in.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Richard Strauss’s Salome is a rollercoaster ride of a sexual coming of age story. The eponymous heroine is a spoiled brat who refuses to return the love of the captain who throws himself at her feet. She is burdened by the misplaced erotically charged attentions of King Herod, her stepfather. Yet she gets all caught up in an unrequited love story with the king’s prized prisoner, Jochanaan, or John the Baptist. In the current cast at the Met’s revival of a production that dates back to 2004 and the dawn of the war in Iraq, Željko Lučić sings him with mellifluous prophetic power (and not, as the character is more often portrayed, as a brutal monster).

Salome takes us to a deep and dark place with her longing to have her affection returned and then with a subsequent desire for senseless revenge. In the Bible, the wishes of her mother are what she is seeking to fulfill. In Strauss’ opera, thanks in large part to Oscar Wilde, the perverse “coming of age” of a twisted young woman, who grew up in an immoral court of self-indulgence and general dissolution, is what blossoms massively to the fore. The Salome of the opera is a privileged little lady who is accustomed to getting what she wants particularly from the men in her life. She is the apple of every man’s eye (or so she thinks) and so when she meets a man who refuses to give her the time of day she ends up feeling particularly spurned.

The Dance of Seven Veils in drag.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Her desire for revenge leads her to disobey her mother’s orders and agree to perform a spirit-lifting strip tease for her lascivious lord and stepfather. Here her “Dance of the Seven Veils” is a gender bending Marlene Dietrich-inspired choreography. Salome comes out in drag – a very Wilde a move. Dressed like a man, in a top hat, tuxedo vest and pants, she taunts her easy audience with her titillating routine. From our cheap seats it was far from clear how revealing she went, but apparently she went all the way. Which is only fitting for the symbolic gesture it is meant to represent. Herod gave his word and if she expects to hold him to it, she needs to stick to hers.

Salome always gets her man.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Patricia Racette isn’t the huge Wagnerian soprano you might come to expect for a role that has to sing out over Strauss’s superlative orchestration. She is seductive, though more fickle than impulsive and more nonplussed than obsessed as the spoiled young princess. She gave us both a physically revealing performance as well as an emotionally raw one between the dance of the seven veils and her slow, steady decline over the head of her conquest once her wish is granted. Nevertheless, her emotional range was dainty and more delicate about her obsession, and she was far from maniacal (as the character is more typically depicted). As a result, Racette’s Salome came off less unhinged and more out of touch with the reality of her actions and their consequences. In my book it is still a valid reading and a strikingly fresh one. The whole score comes off sunnier and more palatable. Some of the truly dark and dingy takes on the piece can really take you in a jaunt through the gutter of the female psyche. This Salome was slightly more relatable, if that is even possible, almost as a normalized monster.

Gerhard Siegel as Herod is that big forceful Wagnerian voice you might expect. He was both commanding and pathetic. He could project out over the orchestra especially in his moments of desperation.

Under the direction of Johannes Debus, the orchestra brought Strauss’s picturesque score vividly to life. He evinced cinematic sounds from every twist and turn of the musical landscape with its exotic oboe motif. The score is very interesting and it has a continuous flow that keeps you on the edge of your seat. But tonight’s performance greatly toned down the frenetic oddities of the score, the weird stuff that has often made Salome seem like a strange mess to me. The whole take on the opera was more sober.

The pastiche of a production.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Jürgen Flimm’s production isn’t entirely convincing as it really is a hodgepodge of disjointed elements. On one end there are futuristic stairs that seem to have been borrowed from the neighboring Apple Store. On the other half of the stage, desert hills that are cartoonishly majestic. The decadence of Herod’s court is coded as decisively colonial if not downright western. The prisoner is kept in an oil well? A mine shaft? Or just a well for water? The captain kills himself with a firearm. The revelers all swill champagne from bottles that bear contemporary labels that could have been bought at any nearby liquor store. The revival of recent experiments in Euro-trash levels of Regietheater like this one, which hasn’t aged terribly well, is a testament to the transitory nature of this directorial style. No matter how open I am to stimulating new takes on the classics, it begins to feel like our Regietheater days are numbered at the Met. Investments in longer lived concepts may be in order so long as the life span of a new production has to be as long as a decade or two.

– Lui & Lei

The Seven Angels of the Apocalypse look ominously on.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

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