By Dorothy Andries
HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. – When Patricia Racette dashed onto the stage of the Ravinia Festival pavilion for her curtain call on Aug. 2, she mounted the podium and acknowledged the crowd’s cheers with a beaming smile and arms upraised. She had just triumphed in the role of Salome in Richard Strauss’ one-act opera of the same name, and she knew it.
Now in her late forties, Racette was making her debut in that role, a characteristically daring move. After a career portraying Verdi and Puccini heroines on a regular basis in major houses such as the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera, she also took on premiere roles in new works in San Francisco (on late notice), Santa Fe Opera, and Houston Grand Opera and sang in opera houses throughout Europe.
Salome, however, requires more stamina and vocal power from a soprano than does Mimi in La Boheme, Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly or even Violetta in La Traviata, despite their tragic stories. Salome is a character who descends into a hell of sexual perversity. Herod’s final line, “Kill that woman,” actually seems the only possible response to her madness.
All that and more is in the music of Strauss’ 1905 opera. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which has made its summer home at the Ravinia Festival in the northern suburb of Highland Park since 1936, is a heavy-hitting ensemble, able to deliver this densely romantic score with power and polish. Strauss’ music pushes the harmonic envelope and makes strong textural demands on the orchestral musicians. Even in the concert setting in which Salome’s sinuous dance is represented only by the music, their performance simmered with passion. Under the baton of the festival’s music director James Conlon, the players gave us a dazzling evening of fiery emotion.
Salome is not a pretty story. It ends in violence and death. Racette confidently captured the character of the spoiled Judean princess. She traversed the downward path from curiosity to lust to debauchery, and by the end of the night was snarling at her step-father, the licentious Herod. Just when you thought it couldn’t be more horrible, she sang about kissing the severed head of John the Baptist.
But what a voice! Silvery and strong, fearless when confronting the Wagnerian-like vocal demands of Strauss, who is being honored this year on the 150th anniversary of his birth.
Racette was surrounded by a stellar cast. Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins was Jochanaan, the object of Salome’s illicit desire. His voice was first heard from off-stage, indicating that he was singing from deep in a cistern. When he came into view, he was a power-house of evangelical fervor, raging with condemnation of Herod’s decadent court.
American tenor Allan Glassman stepped into the role of Herod for Wolfgang Schmidt, who was indisposed. Glassman sang the role in 2004 at the Metropolitan Opera and managed it marvelously at Ravinia.
Salome’s mother and Herod’s wife, Herodias, is the main object of the prophet’s scorn, and German soprano Gabriele Schnaut was formidable in her Ravinia debut.
Other notables were mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier as the Cassandra-like page and sweet-voiced tenor Joseph Kaiser portraying the young Syrian captain smitten by Salome’s beauty. Kaiser was a fellow at Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute and was also a member of the Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The dark, disturbing tale of Salome was potently presented at Ravinia, and Racette had every right to raise her arms in jubilation.
Dorothy Andries is a Chicago-area entertainment journalist and classical music critic, writing for the Sun-Times Media Group and various magazines. For several decades she was entertainment editor for Pioneer Press, a community weekly on the North Shore of Chicago.