The story of “Salome” is an old one, originally found in the Bible, with a stage adaption penned by Oscar Wilde more than a century ago.
This year’s Spoleto Festival production of “Salome,” directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, takes a contemporary approach to staging the ancient tale.
“Salome” tells the biblical story of Herod Antipas’ step-daughter who requests John the Baptist’s head on a platter in exchange for dancing the dance of the seven veils. Tenor Paul Groves, a performer in last year’s chamber music series, plays Herod alongside up-and-coming soprano Melanie Henley Heyn as Salome.
A demanding opera for its singers, “Salome” features a large orchestra and a lot of expressive music.
“Salome is one of the greatest musical masterpieces of the 20th century because it takes the play by Oscar Wilde in the most direct way and adds incredible chromatics and the sheer drama of the music,” conductor Steven Sloane said. “The amazing thing about this score is that for all the characters, the music is integral to the drama, and that’s what makes this pieces so wonderful and so shocking. It’s a direct hit to the musical and dramatic nerves.”
When it first was performed in 1905, some considered it scandalous. The opera's mix of religion, eroticism and violence prompted protest and censorship. It took a while for Strauss' one-act whirlwind of a piece, with its chromaticism, leitmotifs and abundant tonal modulations, to be considered a classic of the standard repertoire.
The scoring calls for an enormous orchestra, including extra winds and percussion. A scaled-down version was produced, but Spoleto's production will take advantage of the Gaillard Center's large pit.
“We decided to do the original orchestration, which is quite daring because it allows very interesting experiences,” Sloane said. “I would say it stretches the boundaries of what all these instruments can do.”
Co-director Patrice Caurier said the staging of the opera generally has become more contemporary. When the opera was performed 33 years ago, in 1987, at Spoleto Festival, Leiser and Caurier treated it as an allegory about Germany in the 1930s. Now, it’s set in the modern day and focuses on a dysfunctional family.
“It’s a story that exists at any time, it’s a metaphor of the human condition and it’s a tale about the frustration of desire, of sexual desire,” Caurier said. “I don’t think it belongs to a specific time and we wanted to have a modern take, considering what's happening in our world.”
The directorial team decided they wanted to focus on the point of view of the female characters and the suffering they go through because of social pressures.
“It is absolutely timeless with its connection to what is happening in the world,” Sloane added. “We have certain political situations where power, envy, jealousy and even violence are still a part of our daily culture, so a production like this is actually quite relevant.”
The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra will perform the score, which demands more than 80 players. For most of the young musicians, this will be the first time playing "Salome." The singers, too, are mostly new to the opera. They have worked closely with the directors to formulate and realize their characters.
“I think any good production of 'Salome' will leave you shocked because there is such violence in the exchanges between the people,” Caurier said. “I hope people will have a very strong, theatrical, operatic experience that they are taken with from the first look to the last.”
Mary Walrath is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.