Friday, February 3, 2012

Strauss' Salome at the San Diego Opera

"Salome, tanz für mich.
Wenn du für mich tanzest
kannst du von mir begehren was du willst
Ich werde es dir geben."
   - Hugo von Hoffmannstahl, Salome.

The opera season has started here in San Diego. Last Tuesday, after spending 10 straight hours working myself silly at the computer, I sneaked downtown for a break an caught the second performance of Richard Strauss' Salome at the Civic Theater.

Rush ticket line for Salome at the San Diego Civic Theater.
This not being Munich or any other German-speaking city with great appreciation for one of Strauss' most atonal musical drama, the show was not sold out and there were plenty of rush tickets available at the box office (in case you don't already know this, but it pays to call the SDO a few hours before showtime to ask about rush tickets. The orchestra ones were going for $75 and the balcony ones for only $45!).

Long time readers of my blog might remember that I had a rather contentious relationship with Salome. It was the first opera I ever saw live and the sensationalism of the story, albeit biblical (though the opera was adapted from the Oscar Wilde play), repulsed the then rather prudish me, and kept me from buying another opera ticket for a long time. Salome, the step-daughter/niece of Herod, becomes fixated with Jochanaan (John the Baptist).... or rather, with his body, when he repeatedly rejects her sexual advances while unlawfully visiting him in jail. So when her temperamental (and more than a bit creepy) step-dad asks her to dance for him Salome puts on a rigorous strip tease that is so erotically enchanting that he offers her any reward of her choosing - up to half of his kingdom. Alas, as messed up as Herod is, he couldn't have anticipated the depravity of his step-daughter's request; she wants John's severed head.... and what she then proceeds to do with it is something that should keep young audience from attending this show.

Sean Curran's 2012 staging of Salome at the San Diego Opera. From the balcony.
If the story and the explicitness of Wilde's spotlight on Salome's immorality isn't already disturbing enough, Strauss' indulgence in his ability to describe in music the texture of a dripping drop of blood from a dangling head and every other details of the opera's many gory scenes quite guarantees that nobody would leave a good performance of Salome without many disturbing thoughts in his/her head.

But the performance of this show last Tuesday was quite more than just good. There are already many good reviews posted about it online if you google for it. I was really pleased with just about everything, with the exception of Irina Mishura's one-dimentional caricature portrayal of Herodias (Salome's equally morally deficient mother). The minimalistic staging was very appealingly uncluttered and allowed the show's many good acting singers to show off their stagecraft. The San Diego Symphony under Steuart Bedfort was its wonderful self in the partially covered pit. The orchestra occasionally covered the singers, but I don't think they could have dialed it down much softer. Strauss orchestrated this thing for 112 or so instruments, though the pit at the Civic Theater could only seat about 75 players... That's still a big orchestra!
Lise Lindstorm as Salome performing Dance of the Seven Veils. [Photo: Ken Howard]
Seventy five players can all play softly and you'd still get a pretty dense sound for a soprano to try to slice her voice over. The undisputed star of the show, Lise Lindstorm, didn't find much trouble doing that; however, at least not in the upper part of her range. Her lower passages were sometimes lost behind the orchestral sound (I was up in the balcony, so I got the best acoustic in the house), and I did find her upper voice rather monochromatic after a while. Not that any of that did any harm to her vivid incarnation of opera's most morally repulsive role... One pretty much expects to walk out of this show with either the Dance of the Seven Veils or Salome's obsessive; 'Laẞ mich ihn küssen, deinen Mund, (Let me kiss you on your lips),' or the imagery of her playing out her sexual fantasy with a realistic-looking bloody head uncomfortably stuck in one's head. To much of my surprise the thing that haunted me as I caught the bus home from the theater was what Salome whispered to Jochanaan's permanently displaced head;
'Hättest du mich angesehn ------ Had you looked at me
du hättest mich geliebt. ---------- you would have loved me.
Ich weiß es wohl, du hättest mich geliebt -- I know this well, you would have loved me,
und das Geheimnis der Liebe ist größer -- and the mystery of love is greater
als das Geheimnis des Todes. ------------- than the mystery of death.' 
Aside from the preposterous thought that Salome would have anything credible to say about love. The lass is so psychologically dysfunctional that she would make a sociopath seem warm and cuddly by comparison. The thing that disturbed me was the legitimacy of her complaint. Jochanaan, splendidly assumed by the charismatic Greer Grimsley, was a whole lot of insufferable holier-than-thou y'all-are-gonna-burn-in-hell self-appointed judge of everyone else without much trace of love and/or compassion in his interaction with the admittedly spoiled though still obviously mentally underdeveloped teenage girl. That isn't to say that he deserved to have his head forcibly removed from his body to be used as the girl's celebrated sex toy... but had the man given the lass a real chance and treated her with more compassion this particular Salome might have become receptive to growing some nuggets of human decency and the night might have proceeded rather differently for all involved.
Hättest du mich angesehn... [Photo: Ken Howard]
Of course, this notion that there was a lost chance for redemption for Salome is not supported anywhere in the opera. After all, the lass pays not the slightest attention when Narraboth, Captain of Herod's Guards, kills himself when he could no longer stand her indifference. That I thought of that possibility at all while watching the show convinced me that Lise Lindstrom is one heck of a bloody marvelous singing actress. She could sing, she could dance, and even when she wasn't doing anything she still managed to own the stage just by sitting still on the bare floor gazing into the Civic Theater's cavernous unlit auditorium as Allan Glassman's superbly sung and acted Herod argues with his preposterously cartoonish wife in front of their palace.

I hadn't heard of Allan Glassman before, but I sure will be on the look out for him from now on after seeing what a drama-oriented singer/actor could make out of this normally so dismissibly annoying operatic character. For once, a big voiced tenor who allows me a glimpse of what could have been 'great' about Herod the Great! I should also put in a little kudos here for Sean Panikkar as the tragic Narraboth. He made me wish that role more stage time!

The third performance of Salome at the San Diego Opera starts in just a few minutes. You know, I was actually thinking of going down there to catch it until I stopped by at the bike shop and paid another $100 I didn't really have to have the derailleurs and a few other things fixed. That's pretty much my 'pleasure spending' budget for a few weeks. You know how that goes! If you are in town this weekend, though, the final performance is at 2PM on Sunday. It's only 2 hrs long, so you can go and still come back to catch the second half of the Super Bowl, even!


yvette said...

And when she precisely sings on the word'love' the music goes in one of those Strauss unique angel like curves, so light and hazy compared to what was played just some seconds before. This is a great post from San Diego.. thanks a lot! Smorgy, if I got it right, your conclusion could be 'My bike for Salomé'...

bereweber said...

ah mister Smorg, loooved your review, and i am sorry i didn't read this before, i would have been at 2pm on Sunday after reading your review of Salome... i could've even practice my Deutsch, sounds wonderful, will keep on reading your blog for further news on this Opera season in SD, maybe we can run into each other? oh btw, I am catholic and i rather familiar with the story of Salome, 'San Juan el Bautista' as we know him in Spanish, so even if the German fails me, i could've follow the story :( next time!

Anonymous said...

Salome vs Superbowl .... I wonder?
and Blogger still insists I'm anonymous! Eyes.

Anonymous said...

You have almost tempted me to go and see Opera Australia's Salome this year.

Georg said...

Bonjour Smorgy,

Just finished listening to this YT video about Richard Strauss's opera. That was a great idea to post this one here at your blog together with your personal impression of the performance.

I am not astonished that Salome was not sold out. This music is on the threshold of slidding into "modernity", though already a hundred years ago.

With you joy.


Georg said...

wanted to say "wish you joy" (not "with").


Anonymous said...

It's a mite disconcerting seeing the picture of Lindstrom holding the severed head of Greer Grimsley! Sounds like a good show. Just reading 'as messed up as Herod is, even he couldn't have anticipated the depravity of his step-daughter's request for John's severed head.... and what she then proceeds to do with it,' and I'm curious what exactly she did with it!

J Turner

Drew80 said...

You make me wish I had been there, too.

I am glad you enjoyed the performance, and I hope all is well with you.

Smorg said...

Hiya Yvette: Indeed! It is such an uncomfortable opera to sit through without admiring it, and without hating myself a bit for admiring it... It is so graphic in a most earworm-inducing way! :oD I was really torn between getting the bike fixed and going for an encore performance... but I really need this bike to work! ;o)

Hiya Bere: Arghhh! It would have been fun to go to this show with you, mi amiga. But that was a rather good Super Bowl, too, wasn't it? I didn't quite know which team to cheer for. In the end I'm glad New York won. :o)

Hiya Eyes: You are still eye-catching even when anonymous! :oD Yup, we Americans and that violent game... In this match up, though, I don't know which is more violent; the opera or American football!

Hiya Andre: Opera Australia is doing Salome? Who do they get as the leading lady? If it is a good singers I'd really recommend it. I'm still walking around with the Dance of Seven Veils stuck in my ears (it's more pleasant a bit for repeated listening than the Salome bits I was haunted by earlier!). :o)

Hallo Georgy: It is a remarkable opera, isn't it? I've seen some very disturbing movies over the years, but hardly any movie scene disturbs me more thoroughly than a couple of hours of Strauss' Salome. And the beheading was done off the stage, so visually it isn't that gory an opera... it's just the way the music describes it and reflects Salome's depraved psyche... really gives you the creep! :oD

Thank you! I wish you joy, too. It is always a treat to bump into you online!

Hi JT: To be honest Lindstorm didn't go all creepy with the head the way some other Salomes do. :oD If you have the Goetz Friedrich DVD of this thing with Teresa Stratas in the lead, tho, that's quite more creepy...

Hiya Drew: One of these days I hope I'll run into you and a few other internet friends at an opera or concert! :oD Then the show would get even more fun!

All is going pretty well here indeed. Thanks! I'm having a nice little break in between work assignments. Caught the HD broadcast of Goetterdaemmerung from the Met yesterday (loved it). Will be riding my bike around re-exploring San Diego a bit this week. I can't believe it is February. It rained yesterday and got a bit chilly, but on the whole this winter has been really weirdly warm!

Thank you everyone for stopping by! :oD