By Diane Windeler
SAN ANTONIO — As the first full-scale opera of its inaugural season, Opera San Antonio offered the much anticipated debut of soprano Patricia Racette in her first fully staged performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome (after a concert version at the Ravinia Festival last summer). The musically and dramatically incisive production was conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing and directed and choreographed by Candace Evans at the 1,700-seat H-E-B Performance Hall of the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
Strauss himself declared that the ideal Salome should be a 16-year-old girl with the voice of an Isolde. That combination is rare, indeed, which accounts for the hefty Salomes over the years who have wisely avoided the dreaded Dance of the Seven Veils, or the lithe singing actresses who looked right but lacked the chops for the music’s huge vocal challenges.
Racette proved to have the right mix in the opening performance Jan. 8, delivering the goods with intelligent musicianship and a more robust, silver-flecked instrument than she normally displays.
Any concerns about bringing her brighter sound to what amounts to a Wagnerian role generally were put to rest. Salome’s vocal range covers more than two octaves, from the top of the treble staff down to G below middle C. Racette’s ringing high notes were well supported, while most of the lower phrases were rich and mahogany-hued. Some lines were mere whispers, others – especially when she reacted to Jochanaan’s rebuffs – were almost shrieking. Later, as she wheedled Herod to give her the gruesome reward, her dramatic pacing was carefully considered as she wove a tapestry of ever-increasing madness that was downright chilling.
Her sensual adolescent spent a lot of time on her stomach with feet criss-crossing in the air or winding herself around a rooftop fountain. She may be innocent, but she’s not unaware. Once she begins taunting Jochanaan (John the Baptist) and becomes increasingly furious when he spurns her, we realize that she is a textbook sociopath. In fact, she may be the original bad seed.
And, yes, she does get naked at the end of the infamous dance. Briefly, but triumphantly.
Strauss’ gloriously decadent opera was born of Oscar Wilde’s French-language play, which was truncated and translated into German by Strauss as composer and librettist in 1905. It deals with obsessions: that of Herod for his teenage stepdaughter, Salome; that of the appallingly spoiled young Salome for Jochanaan, who is being held captive in what amounts to Herod’s basement; and Jochanaan’s overreaching evangelism regarding the Messiah.
The place is Herod’s palace in Judea, but instead of Biblical times this production is set around the fin de siècle. The quasi Art Deco set design of Andrew Cavanaugh Holland generally drew upon Wilde’s original instructions: a moonlit terrace off the banquet hall with a grand staircase on one side, an upper parapet and a cistern where Jochanaan is imprisoned. Well, scratch the cistern. It’s a circular, unaccountably vertical opening covered with a metal lattice (and thus unlikely to catch much rainwater).
External furnishings and accents are spare, but a view of the dining hall hints at lavishness inside. Linda Pisano’s handsome costume designs are richly colored and detailed but are purposely vague as to period.
From the cistern’s depths came the well-modulated, robust voice of bass-baritone Alan Held as a Jochanaan who, after emerging from his cell, was shocked and repulsed by Salome’s advances. Despite Salome’s declaration (backed by projected subtitles) that his skin — his entire body — is white, he was clad in long, baggy trousers and a grubby long-sleeved shirt that reveals nothing more than his neck and hands.
In recent years, veteran tenor Allan Glassman has made the role of Herod his own. Here, he kept the overt lust for his stepdaughter to a minimum without sacrificing his clear intent to have her. As has become customary, his portrayal had a touch of humor, but was nowhere near the foolish prurience seen in other productions. He was vocally clear and strong, conveying near-palpable horror and disbelief during the post-dance scene when he desperately tried to dissuade Salome from demanding the head of Jochanaan on a silver charger as a reward. Earlier, there had been a curious bit of stage business: Herod was given a forearm injection of some sort — and we’re not talking insulin.
The seductive dance had an appropriately spontaneous quality and was cleverly broken up so that Racette was not obliged to writhe and strip alone for interminable minutes. She removed and waved a few of her own veils, then began taking others from various persons (she stuffed Herodias’ veil into the prison grate). Turns with four attentive male dancers (from Ballet San Antonio) preceded her final reveal.
Narraboth has a brief part, but Brian Jagde brought a clarion voice and convincing acting to the role of the captain obsessed beyond all reason with (who else?) Salome. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was effectively callous as the cruel Herodias, displaying a ripe, coppery instrument and a curly red wig to match.
Also among the consistently excellent cast were soprano Renée Rapier as the Page, mezzo-soprano Tynan Davis as the Servant, bass Matthew Anchel as the First Soldier, Turkish bass Önay Kağan Köse as a Cappadocian and tenor Daniel Curran as the First Jew.
There were a number of unexpected twists in director-choreographer Evans’ otherwise conventional staging. The most astonishing came at the end, after Salome kissed the lips of Jochanaan’s severed head and Herod shouted, “Kill that woman!” The soldiers drew their handguns and shot Herodias (!?) and then Salome. Whoa.
In the pit, music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing led the San Antonio Symphony in a resplendent, unfailingly sensitive account of Strauss’ demanding score. All those emotional sound effects and paintings — the various motifs, whirling winds, or nervous scratchings — were played with clarity and a wealth of color.
Diane Windeler is an independent San Antonio-based writer who was classical music critic for the San Antonio Light for 11 years before its demise in 1993. Later, she covered music and theater for 13 years as a freelancer for the San Antonio Express-News. She now contributes to the website incidentlight.com.