Richard Strauss’ Salome

Dates and Venue 2, 5, 7 & 9 May 2009 @ 7.30 pm | Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Salome Mlada Khudoley Jokanaan (John the Baptist) Greer Grimsley Herod John MacMaster Herodias Judith Forst Narraboth Sean Panikkar

Conductor Jonathan Darlington Director Joseph McClain Chorus Director Leslie Dala Scenic design Robert Dahlstrom Wig design Stacey Butterworth Musical preparation Kinza Tyrrell and Angus Kellett Stage manager Sheila Munn

Sung in German with English surtitles

Reviewer John Jane

No other work in Opera’s repertoire conjures as much ambiguity, both in its content and reception, as Richard Strauss’s Salome. Certainly disturbing, yet at the same time, it is graphically compelling. Flamboyant Irish playwright Oscar Wilde gets creative credit by way of his highly speculative play that chronicles the tribulations of the bible’s most dysfunctional family. Though, in fact, it is widely adapted from Jewish historian Josephus Flavius’s account of the life and death of John the Baptist.

To a large extent, Salome is a study in obsessions; Narraboth and Herod’s obsession with Salome, Salome’s obsession for John the Baptist and in turn, his furor with his own ministry as Christ’s fore-runner. Strauss’s narrative powers in his orchestrations strongly suggest a musical tension in an atmosphere of looming violence and madness.

With no overture to set the mood, the production relies on immediately instigating this tension in movement without music. In the first scene, we first see Narraboth, a young Syrian captain issuing directions to his guard detail in advance of a banquet in Herod’s palace. The officer’s infatuation with Herod’s step-daughter, now Princess of Judea is well-known among the household staff and he is warned to limit his attention.

Narraboth pays little heed to the advice and declares his feelings for Salome with the first aria of the evening, Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht! (how beautiful is the princess tonight). The short but vital role of Narraboth is well served by vibrant tenor Sean Panikkar, who forfeits his life in despair over his fateful desire for Salome.

The choice of Russian soprano Mlada Khudoley is a truly inspired one. A tremendous challenge for any soprano, Ms Khudoley approaches the role with expression and audacity and clearly understands the vocal and dramatic demands placed on Strauss’s anti-heroine. She uses her youth to advantage, combining wistful innocence and childlike blitheness; particularly when called upon to display bravery as well as sensual intensity in Denise Clark's loosely choreographed Salome’s Dance (popularly known as the dance of the seven veils) ending the ten minute spectacle wearing little more than the briefest of thongs.

The young soprano displays coquettish charm in persuading Narraboth to risk his career and bring the imprisoned Jokanaan to her. Salome is initially repelled by Jokanaan’s dishevelled appearance as she expresses Er ist schrecklich (he is awful). But whether in an act of defiance or raw animal magnetism, Salome quickly becomes spellbound by the prophet’s charisma. Greer Grimsley, in arguably one of the strongest vocal performance of the evening, vehemently rejects Salome’s rapturous advance with the powerfully delivered Wird dir nicht bange, tochter der Herodias? (are you not afraid, daughter of Herodias?).

There is a special joy in seeing a performance by our own Judith Forst. The Canadian icon is still a world class coloratura mezzo-soprano with a penchant for making difficult roles look easy. Her savvy portrayal as the calculating Herodias is a perfect foil for John MacMaster’s apropos buffoonery as the hedonistic and lascivious Herod.

Maestro Jonathon Darlington obviously shares a deep and sincere passion for this opera. Under his vigorous direction, the expanded Vancouver Opera Orchestra rises to the challenge of Strauss’s electrifying score. This opera more than most relies heavily on the musician’s performance to reflect the action on stage - physically and psychologically. Nowhere was their contribution more evident than with the seductive orchestration of Salome’s Dance.

Robert Dahlstrom’s uncomplicated set utilises an exaggerated perspective with a rolling floor whose surface varies in tone and texture with degrees of moonlight through Gerald King’s dramatic lighting.

In the lengthy final aria, Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jokanaan (I have kissed your mouth, Jokanaan), I found myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat as I watched a blood-stained Salome caress the severed head of the prophet Jokanaan in depraved erotic yearning. In this final scene Mlada Khudoley provides a mesmerizing vision fully plumbing the depth of Salome's demented soul.

Unlike with Gilda in Rigoletto, VO’s previous presentation, no one in the audience shed a tear as a result of Salome’s demise. But perhaps more significantly, they did rise in unison for a standing ovation.

Vancouver Opera ends a most successful season on an artistic high. Local opera lovers must now wait six months for Vincenzo Bellini's Norma.

© 2009 John Jane