‘Salome’ Is Given A Risky, Risqué Spin In Spoleto Staging

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Herod (Paul Groves) is infatuated with Salome (Melanie Henley Heyn) in the Spoleto production of Strauss’ opera.
(Production photos by Leigh Webber)
By James L. Paulk

CHARLESTON ‒ Spoleto Festival USA, now in its 43rd season, is the South’s great arts extravaganza, with extensive programming of classical music, theater, dance, jazz, and things that aren’t so easily pegged. Opera has always had center stage here, appropriate enough for a festival founded by an opera composer, Gian Carlo Menotti. So, for opera fans, it was disconcerting to discover that this season features a single opera, down from three almost every summer for decades. General director Nigel Redden explained that this was due both to a missing venue (the Sottile Theatre is being renovated) and to uncertainty, at the time the season was set, as to the continued availability of the fabled Westminster Choir College, the festival’s longtime partner, which serves as the opera chorus and whose members are cast in many of the operas. The decision was made, just for this season, to present a single large-scale opera, one that doesn’t require a chorus.

Salome

There might be just one opera, but it’s a doozy. In fine Spoleto tradition, Richard Strauss’ Salome has been given a risky and risqué production that raises as many questions as it answers. The renowned Belgian/French directing team of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser debuted here in 1987 with a provocative Salome, set in Fascist Germany. They returned to the same opera this season, this time with a deconstruction production, setting it in the present day and paying close attention to the most cynical elements in Hedwig Lachmann’s libretto, which hews closely to the original play by Oscar Wilde.

Jokanaan (Eric Van Heyningen) is pursued by Salome (Heyn).

Standard productions of Salome present Salome as a sick, almost demonic teenager and Jokanaan (John the Baptist) as a saintly prophet, an approach that perhaps owes more to the Biblical version of the story than to the words of the libretto. Caurier and Leiser have made a persuasive case for a Salome that is cruder, more violent, and more depraved than previous productions. And, not coincidentally, more timely.

In this production, Salome is a teenager fending off the advances of Herod, her powerful stepfather, as well as those of Narraboth, captain of the palace guard. She becomes obsessed with Jokanaan, who savagely rejects her, in keeping with his misogynistic ravings (“It was woman who brought evil into the world”) and his focus on Herodias, Salome’s mother, whom he savages at length as an incestuous, adulterous whore while curiously ignoring her cruel despot husband. Herodias here becomes the voice of reason and sanity in the palace, and is both ignored and abused.

Most of the opera takes place on a rooftop in a bleak and worn cityscape, the sort you might find in present day Palestine. There is a party going on next door, as prescribed, and “Another One Bites the Dust” (Queen) blares at the audience as the curtain opens, before Strauss’ score begins. Jokanaan’s cell, which descends from the flies, is depicted as a modernist studio with a bed, desk, a computer, and a painting of Christ on the Sea of Galilee, a nod to his preferred treatment at the hands of Herod, who fears him. His usual verbal assault on Salome becomes physical as he strikes her and throws her violently on the bed and floor so that her evening gown becomes undone, exposing her from the waist up.

Even beyond the dark portrayal of Jokanaan, the production manages to amplify Wilde’s jaundiced view of religion. Caurier and Leiser have mercilessly turned all the religious figures into caricatures. The Jews, as in standard productions, bicker endlessly over minor theological points. But here the Christians have become proselyting fundamentalists, dressed in white shirts and neckties and passing out Bibles.

The Dance of the Seven Veils becomes a lewd seduction scene. Salome provocatively moves around Herod, removing her panties and his pants, and mounts him for simulated intercourse.

When the head arrives at the end, it is covered with a bloody cloth. As Salome celebrates and prepares to kiss its lips, Herod arrives with Jokanaan. When Salome uncovers the head, she recognizes it as that of Narraboth, who shot himself earlier, when she rejected him. As Herod utters his final, chilling words, “Kill this woman,” we get a final glimpse at his abuse of power, his misogyny, his manipulation of religious zealots, and his utter self-absorption. Sound familiar?

As usual with Regietheater, the directors went out of their way to explain their concept and anchor it in the text. While fascinating, this needs to be taken with a large grain of Dead Sea salt. Jokanaan’s misogyny, for example, is certainly there in the libretto, but it’s mixed in with quite a bit of Christian dogma and scripture. And Strauss’ gorgeous music for Jokanaan hardly suggests the dark figure conjured here. That said, this was a coup de théâtre, and those of us who experienced it will surely never think of Salome quite the same way.

Salome (Heyn) with the head of Jokanaan.

The directors must have had a central role in casting, and while the result was dramatically effective, this was simply not a firstrate cast musically. Melanie Henley Heyn makes a striking Salome. Though she is reportedly 38, she is believable as a teenager and beautiful enough that her stepfather’s obsession, and that of Narraboth, are plausible. She is a formidable actress, throwing herself fearlessly into the role in a physical feat that conjured memories of the great Hildegard Behrens. Vocally, her performance was honorable, especially considering that this was her first role in a full-length professional opera. But she lacks the power and control to dominate an opera like Salome, and the top was sometimes pinched.

Almost the same could be said for bass-baritone Eric Van Heyningen. Young and physically imposing as Jokanaan (though hardly the pale, emaciated figure vividly described in the text) and a splendid actor, he was plausible as the object of Salome’s obsession and seemed promising in the role. But this was not a fully formed Jokanaan voice, the kind that gives you goosebumps.

Veteran tenor Paul Groves sang the role of Herod for the first time, and if his performance lacked the demented ferocity of, say, Kenneth Reigel, he at least showed the value of experience for these kinds of roles. Mezzo-soprano Edna Prochnik was a gripping Herodias.

This was surely one of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra’s finest hours. The 88 musicians, whose average age is 26, played with the finesse of a major orchestra under the direction of Steven Sloane, who managed some powerful dynamics and propulsive tempi without, for the most part, overwhelming his young principal singers.

Charleston took it rather well, with only a few walkouts, no booing, and even a perfunctory standing ovation.

Chamber Music

Chamber music is another historic component of the Spoleto, with 11 programs, each performed three times. Eclecticism is the byword for these programs, but clearly there are more contemporary works in the mix this season than in the past. Standouts on opening weekend included Paul Wiancko’s 2016 piece, Closed Universe, for solo cello, string trio, piano, and glockenspiel, with Christopher Costanza as soloist (heard May 25). Densely written and sometimes foreboding, it reveals a world of unexpected colors and, ultimately, joy. At the same concert, pianist Stephen Prutsman joined the St. Lawrence String Quartet for an athletic, thrilling performance of Dohnányi’s C-minor Piano Quintet, a work filled with passion and melodic invention.

The next day (May 26) the program included oboist James Austin Smith performing Three Angularities, a dissonant, fascinating solo work written for him by his father, Larry Alan Smith. Prustman returned for a daring and dazzling performance of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and the St. Lawrence String Quartet turned Haydn’s Emperor Quartet into a thrilling ride.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet gave an exceptional account of Haydn’s Emperor Quartet. (William Struhs)

Since the very beginning, each chamber music program here must come with a “host,” whose comments take the form of a variety show comedy routine. These days, this role is performed by Geoff Nuttall, a gifted violinist who also curates the series. This banter is sometimes clever, but often wanders into Liberace territory. Of course, it’s wildly popular. As was Liberace.

Music in Time

As always, some of the most interesting experiences here are the various Music in Time concerts curated and hosted by John Kennedy, the festival’s director of orchestral activities. Opening weekend featured two programs at a new venue, the Woolfe Street Playhouse, which seats patrons at tables, cabaret-style. The Living Earth Show (seen May 25) featured the duo of Travis Andrews and Andy Meyerson performing edgy experimental works from a range of composers, all written for variations on an electric guitar, played by Andrews, and exotic percussion instruments, played by Meyerson. Part of their charm is their informal, jokey vibe, which belies the seriousness and technical wizardry of their incredibly virtuosic performance, always memorized. An example was Prelude #5/Fugue #4, written for them by Dennis Aman, which calls for guitar and Jell-O-Phone, an electric instrument Aman designed using containers of Jell-O, tuned to a four-note octave, making for a lively adventure on the far frontier of modern sound.

Rebellion in Greenery, at the same venue (May 26) featured a more traditional chamber orchestra, conducted by Kennedy, and music that was closer to the mainstream but still experimental. This concert took its name from a work by Britta Byström that received its U.S. premiere at the concert. Evoking images of nature, it came across as a more melodious, slightly less raucous Rite of Spring, with a distinct Nordic flair and a brisk, frisky energy.

City Symphonies

Composer Michael Gordon (co-founder of Bang on a Can) collaborated with filmmaker Bill Morrison to create City Symphonies (seen May 26). Gordon’s score was performed live by a large orchestra (conducted by Kennedy) while three silent films by Morrison, each evoking a different city, were projected: Gotham (New York), Dystopia (Los Angeles), and El Sol Caliente (Miami Beach). The movies mix archival footage with new material in an effort to capture “the aura of a city.” For example, Gotham begins with decaying, damaged footage of sheep in the Central Park Sheep Meadow, then progresses through time to a gritty view of the city, lingering over iron-workers building skyscrapers. Gordon’s score is tough, atonal, loud, and brash. He’s a minimalist, but with an edge. This is challenging music, but it does offer a wondrous range of coloring and texture. The music sometimes seemed too harsh for the slow-moving movie montages. Dystopia, the Los Angeles work, was the most fascinating of the three. But during the pause before the final episode, about a third of the audience chose flight into the night. Perhaps they were expecting Mozart.

A scene from ‘El Sol Caliente’ (Miami Beach), Bill Morrison’s silent film with music by Michael Gordon.

Spoleto Festival USA continues through June 9. Additional performances of Salome are set for June 2 and 5. Chamber music concerts continue twice daily. A Music in Time concert June 3 will feature music of Georg Friedrich Haas. There will be a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion on June 4. A Westminster Choir concert will take place June 7. For a complete calendar and ticketing details, go here.

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in Atlanta, where he works as a development officer with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.