Gazing at Salome Twice, Through His Lens, Hers; One Is, Like, Really Goth

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Elza van den Heever, as Salome in the Paris Opéra production, “is the rare contemporary soprano who really does have the stuff to fulfill Strauss’s demands.” (Photo by Agathe Poupeney)

PERSPECTIVE — Coming up on its 117th birthday, Salome remains among the most ubiquitous of operas. If a live performance of Richard Strauss’ shocker is what your heart is set on, there’s always one within striking distance. How often, though, do the planets align for simultaneous new productions in houses at opposite ends of a three-hour rapid-rail link? That happened in October, with a premiere on Oct. 2 in Basel, a Swiss bastion of humanism since the days of Erasmus some 500 years ago, and another on Oct. 12 in Paris, ever the cynosure of glamour and fashion. Adding to the sense of occasion, the leadership roles of director and conductor fell to men in Basel and to women in Paris.

In recent years, feminist critics and academics have had a lot to say about “the male gaze,” calling out kingpins of the movie business who objectify women for their own voyeuristic pleasure and that of other men. How about the female gaze? Some say no such thing exists, that the rare woman in a director’s chair has at her fingertips subtler, less exploitive ways to gratify her desires.

The Basel production of ‘Salome’ features Jason Cox (Jokanaan, or the head thereof), Heather Engebretson as Salome, Peter Tantsis as Herod, and Jasmin Etezadzadeh as Herodias. (Photo by Thomas Aurin)

What opera bears more pointedly on such matters than Salome? A Biblical princess dances for her lecherous stepfather and demands the head of John the Baptist as her reward, yes, but that’s not all. Forever, characters are mooning about with an ardor their love objects ignore, fend off, or despise but never reciprocate. Salome reigns as the lone figure who both gazes and is gazed at. What’s more, she knows how to exploit a love slave’s weakness for her own satisfaction. No one else possesses this secret, but she pays for it with her life.

I saw the Basel Salome on Oct. 16. Cool, playful, and uncluttered, the Theater Basel production was directed by the frisky German jack of all theatrical trades Herbert Fritsch, now in his early 70s — yet to my eyes, it might almost have passed for the handiwork of Julie Taymor. As in Alice in Wonderland, bodies blow around weightless like playing cards in the wind. Two days later, on Oct. 18, I caught the Paris Opéra’s production at the Bastille. Mounted by the 40-something American critics’ darling Lydia Steier, this big-box blockbuster is cut from much the same grim, dystopian cloth as recent work by Krzysztof Warlikowski (not a name to conjure with in my house).

Heather Engebretson as Salome and Jasmin Etezadzadeh as Herodias in Basel.

For the tired businessman, if that fabled beast still exists, the Fritsch variant (co-produced with Lucerne, where it opened before the pandemic, and Mannheim, where it has yet to be seen), is far the better bet. The curtain rises on a stage bare but for two golden thrones shaped like blobs in a lava lamp, with a huge full moon projected on the cyclorama. To one side, we discover Narraboth, the amorous Syrian captain of the guards, here a knock-kneed dead ringer for Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, staring out into the wings, transfixed by the offstage princess. The Page of Herodias, a kind of clown figure in black, hovers at a distance, smitten with Narraboth. Two soldiers in uniform, also in black, patrol the perimeter — and at center stage, sticking out of the floor, is the living head of the Baptist, a.k.a. Jokanaan.

By rights, Jokanaan should remain unseen, though not unheard, until Salome has him brought forth from imprisonment in an underground cistern; yet this works, and how. In Jason Cox, Jokanaan exerts a baleful magnetism, capturing the ear with his rock-solid authority and the eye with the coiled, muscular presence of an old Spanish master’s martyr on an altar. Heather Engebretson’s diminutive, barefoot Salome, once she shows up in her pink party dress and black bob, is an imp in perpetual motion, hopscotching across the scene and bouncing off the walls. If hers is not the heroic instrument Strauss had in mind for the part, she makes a brave showing by dint of high notes smoothly projected, true pitch in lower ranges where her projection falters, and most of all the sheer blaze of personality. Her dance, which involves no veils, pales beside her previous physical activity, but watch out for the killing of the prophet. Salome takes her prize herself this time, yanking the head from the ground with her bare hands, like a rotten tooth. No, there is no blood.

In Paris, there’s blood by the bucket, and the atrocities start right away. No sooner has the curtain risen on an unlovely concrete courtyard than a first corpse is lugged in naked for disposal by a hazmat crew. Needless to say, there will be more corpses, male and female, sent upstairs to Herod’s orgy one by one, wrapped only in bows and ribbons. Through the picture window in his clubroom, we see Salome herself. Her back to the entertainment, she’s a Goth rebel with big bones and a bigger chip on her shoulder. Flash forward to the dance, and there she stands for a long time as Herod gropes her from behind, soon proceeding to remove her boots, her stockings, and then her panties but not her dreary white lab coat. Next thing you know, he’s lying supine, and she mounts him, still in her lab coat, grinding away in a fury until ganged up on by stepdad’s small army of ghouls and geeks, who leave her in bloody tatters.

Karita Mattila as Herodias and Elza van den Heever as Salome in Paris. (Agathe Poupeney)

Incredibly, Elza van den Heever delivers much of Salome’s finale monologue from the shadows while a body double slavers on the floor over a lump unrecognizable as the prophet’s head. Then, just for fun, Steier brings back Iain Paterson’s Jokanaan in his cage, head still on his shoulders, and van den Heever joins him to dissolve into his embrace like a second Isolde.

“I believe in entertainment,” Steier declares in a promotional video, promising audiences “something big and delicious and terrifying,” “a delight for the eyes,” and to top it all off, “a punch in the stomach.” Among the delights, two Nazarenes straight from La Cage aux Folles, a quintet of Jews sized nano to jumbo, and Karita Mattila — once the Salome of her generation — mixing it up as Salome’s mother Herodias, crowned by a rat’s nest of straw hair, tassels hanging from firm, bare, fake nipples. It’s a sickening world, Steier tells us, but it’s also a world that reflects our own corruption. And Salome is the revolutionary who deliberately brings it all crashing down. (No, that’s Elektra.)

Adding insult to injury, Steier lays this travesty on the “strong, spectacular presence” of her soprano, an artist for whom the long conventional, “spectacularly uninteresting weak little girl who has been abused…is not an option.” If Fortune smiles, van den Heever’s next director will want to put those powers of hers to less nuclear uses. From her performance at the Bastille, one already senses how that might go. Frequently, where the stage action is barbaric, her noble phrasing cancels it out. Setting aside isolated moments just over the edge, here is the rare contemporary soprano who really does have the stuff to fulfill Strauss’ demands. Better still, she uses those resources to deliver notes of vulnerability and pathos a more fragile instrument cannot sustain. Close your eyes on Steier’s Salome and you might see a very different princess.

Elza van der Heeven as Salome and Iain Paterson as Jokanaan in the Paris Opéra production. (Agathe Poupeney)

Reflecting on the performances, I keep coming back to the implications of male vs. female interpretation. To what degree might Fritsch’s and Steier’s varying emphases reflect “mankind” and “womankind” — rather than more multidimensional perspectives of the individual directors? Most of all: Might a viewer who came to the party not knowing which production was whose be able to guess? On the current evidence, I think not.

Regarding the conductors, the story is just as inconclusive. You don’t expect from a regional ensemble the orchestral edge, polish, and richness of colors on offer from the cosmopolitan Opéra all-stars. Still, Basel has its share of virtuosi, too, notably among the woodwinds, as well as admirable esprit de corps. That said, both Clemens Heil in Basel and Simone Young in Paris disappointed me, and in more or less the same way. Both prioritized flow to the point of blurring not only Strauss’ masterful architecture but also his pinpoint detail. In Basel, the plink! that marks the opening of the eyes of the blind seems not to have been played at all. Generally speaking, Heil falls short at climaxes where Young shivers the timbers. But that’s a red herring. Heil is working with a reduced orchestration Strauss prepared for performance in 1930, curiously enough in Paris, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Nearly a century later at the Bastille, Young commands the composer’s full battalion.