Warning: This opera (and this review) contains adult content, for Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” first performed in 1905 and based on Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play, is all about sex and desire.
The timeliness of this Spoleto Festival production — which arrives in an historical moment of reflection and debate over the agency of, and assaults on, women here in the U.S. and around the world — is uncanny. This is a production for the #MeToo age.
Oscar Wilde would be pleased. His intention was to raise questions about social practices and assumptions that considered female desire licentious yet excused patriarchal misogyny and granted men unequivocal power over the gentler sexes. Directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier undertake to expand on Wilde’s objective by updating the setting and time period and by presenting singer-actors who successfully convey the crude motivations of these troubled characters and the corruptions of power.
This is not what they did last time. In 1987, Caurier and Leiser directed a version of “Salome” for the Spoleto Festival that served as an allegory of 20th century fascism. This new production hews closer to the issues Wilde and, by extension, Strauss chose to raise.
The results are mixed.
The one-act opera runs under two hours, has an engaging dramatic arc, interesting characters, terrific late-Romantic music that helps convey the emotional and hormonal sturm-und-drang of the story and, in this version, a contemporary set. The action takes place, presumably, in the present, at King Herod’s modern palace where Princess Salome flees a dinner party (barefoot for some reason) to escape Herod’s sexual advances.
On the palace rooftop she runs into trouble, first in the form of Narraboth, a young guard obsessed with her, then in the form of Jokanaan (John the Baptist), a religious zealot sequestered in a small room of the palace.
It’s a perverted love triangle. Narraboth desires Salome; Herod lusts for his step-daughter; Salome, fascinated by the handsome Jokanaan, is determined to have him — at any cost.
But she must dodge one man, avoid another (until she decides not to), and somehow reckon with her own budding sexuality and desire to escape the oppression of her circumstances. She does not reckon with it particularly well. Both Narraboth’s and Salome’s amorous overtures are unrequited, leading to fatal consequences. She spurns the guard, even as she endures physical abuse from the pious man convinced that all the world’s ills are caused by loose women.
Salome, a privileged princess used to getting her way, becomes a little nuts, something Herod observes to her mother, Herodias, a staunch defender of her daughter, even after Salome demands the head of Jokanaan on a silver platter. (She thinks Salome is defending her from Jokanaan’s allegations of sexual promiscuity.)
By the time we get to Salome’s famous Dance of the Seven Veils, for which Herod has agreed to grant her any wish, any suggestion of metaphor has been dismissed entirely. For this production’s version of the seductive dance is no dance at all but, rather, a stylized portrayal of foreplay and intercourse, with Salome passively tolerating her step-father’s sexual aggression.
Is this an assault? Salome reluctantly agrees to endure this older man’s lecherous appetite because he has sworn to grant her wish in return. This raises questions about the difficult choices women must make to get what they want, and the obstacles they, and they alone, must overcome. In Salome's case, the escape route — Jokanaan — is blocked by religious extremism and she remains trapped.
All of this was successfully conveyed by this unsubtle production, though I did regret the abandonment of metaphor and the dance that would have had Salome slowly undressing before Herod and driving him mad with desire. In so doing she would have retained a degree of agency and power over the king. The decision to make her a passive vessel of Herod’s lust rendered her struggle masochistic.
In demanding the head of Jokanaan, and sacrificing her innocence for it, one wonders whether this impetuous Salome was seeking revenge, fulfilling her intense desire, rescuing her mother, or all of the above. Is she a victim or is she taking control?
The staging sometimes was odd. As Salome sings fervently about her sexual desire for Jokanaan, Herod and Herodias remain nearby, listening. When Herod has sex with Salome, her mother is there to witness the act. Jokanaan is imprisoned (presumably for his own protection) behind velvet ropes, but then suddenly appears. And the “dark tomb” in which he resides really is a well-lit furnished room.
Perhaps stage lighting that draws the audience’s attention away from characters unimportant to the action and toward a focal point (Salome, in most cases) might have helped.
Set designer Christian Fenouillat managed to create a little visual diversity by dropping Jokanaan’s room — replete with bed, desk and computer, and a painting of Jesus at the Sea of Galilee — to the stage. Inside the room, Salome is smitten by Jokanaan’s beauty and angered by his pious rejection, which in some ways contradicts what Jesus ostensibly is reciting above him. These are not very forgiving people.
Erik Van Heyningen sang with a warm, expressive baritone, managing Jokanaan’s soaring, lyrical lines with aplomb. Tenor Paul Groves, as Herod, was a convincing tyrant who sang with passion and a delightful bite. Zach Borichevsky, who played the heartsick Narraboth, writhed appropriately and possessed a ringing tenor voice full of pathos. The singers in supporting roles all were excellent, vocally and dramatically.
Melanie Henley Heyn, making her operatic debut, imbued her character with welcomed youthfulness and the right combination of angst and distress, obsession and apathy, lust and languor. She embodied Salome through and through. Strauss wrote a demanding vocal part, with a huge range that reaches high into the soprano’s upper register. It presents something of a dilemma to opera producers: Do you cast someone young and attractive, as the character is meant to be, or someone older and more seasoned, capable of managing the vocal demands of this late-Romantic score with ease?
Heyn, a talented and courageous singer, did generate a somewhat pinched tone at the top of her range, suggesting that perhaps her voice was not a perfect fit for Salome, even if the rest of her was well suited.
Conductor Steven Sloane led the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra with confident flare. The band sounded great and never overpowered the singers.
Caurier and Leiser took questionable liberty with the ending, a surprise confirming that the young woman discovering and asserting her sexual power was, in fact, powerless all along.