Friday, June 23, 2000

'Salome' gets ahead on a plotter

Surprise moves embellish tale

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        There is no way to escape the decadence, the necrophilia, the bloodthirsty morbidness of Richard Strauss' opera Salome, which opened the Cincinnati Opera season Thursday. But director Nicholas Muni added an extra layer of depravity with some surprise moves in the company's new production.

        Strauss' setting of Oscar Wilde's play, translated to German by Hedwig Lachmann, has generated controversy from its inception. In this production, besides having her lustful stepfather to contend with, Salome must also contend with her mother, making the picture of the dysfunctional family complete.

        The character of the 16-year-old Salome, who demands John the Baptist's head on a platter as reward for her erotic dance, was neither terribly youthful nor seductive. Soprano Stephanie Friede's portrayal was somewhat distant, making her final monologue, while stunningly performed, all the more disturbing.

        Salome's “Dance of the Seven Veils” began as a rather clumsy pas de deux with King Herod (brilliantly performed by Jacque Trussel), who mirrored her moves, removed some of her veils himself, and at one point danced a waltz with her.

        Then, as Herod writhed on his ermine coat, Herodias (Susan Parry) gestured suggestively and unwrapped a bit more of her daughter's costume.

        It was a kinky touch. The chill ing picture climaxed when it was Herodias, and not the guards, who killed Salome in the opera's final moments, riveting the nearly sold-out, opening night audience.

        In its first performance here since 1982, Mr. Muni and his creative team, including designer Peter Werner and lighting designer Thomas C. Hase, updated the opera to the turn of the century, to create a fin de siecle aesthetic. The luxuriant costumes, a mixture of Victorian and Eastern (al so by Mr. Werner), worked well; but the black-coated, Eastern European garb of the five Jews was an unfortunate stereotype.

        The story took place in Herod's observatory — on a round, raked and tilted platform — where Herod had a huge telescope which reflected the image of the moon onto a sphere. (The telescope also doubled as his throne.) It strikingly showed his obsession with the moon; his other obsession, Jokanaan, was imprisoned in the gear-works.

        Mr. Trussel's Herod was properly crazed, and his characterization was the most convincing of the ensemble.

        Ms. Friede was a fine Salome, growing in her obsession with Jokanaan (John) until her final riveting, impassioned scene. Her voice was vibrant and versatile, cutting through the lush orchestral textures and navigating the strenuous passages well.

        In his company debut, Norwegian bass-baritone Ronnie Johansen was a standout as Jokanaan (John). His presence was imposing and his voice was focused, even and powerful.

        Jokanaan's beheading actually took place onstage (by a Samurai executioner), after which Salome cradled the decapitated head in her arms and curled against his body before she kissed it.

        Ms. Parry offered a dark and slightly unhinged Herodias; Scott Piper was an excellent Narraboth, projecting a strong, expressive tenor before falling on his sword.

        One of the most impressive stars of the evening was the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, led in Music Hall's pit by Stefan Lano. Mr. Lano created the ideal atmosphere, and the musicians' playing was ravishing.


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