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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Think Different . . . Headlessly! Lyric Opera's Entirely Russian Salome

A longer while ago than I 'd realized, I was in State College, PA, having attended my first (and thus far only) game at The Beaver. The evening before L, Wench, and I were scheduled to get back in our rented SUV and drive back to Chicago, I checked my e-mail. In it was one from from my friend J asking if I wanted to accompany her to see Salome starring the man who would later become my Welsh Bass-Baritone boyfriend and some chippie intent on taking off her clothes. I answered, in the words of Patton Oswalt, "Fuck yes." And, more confusingly "You wouldn't give a crippled crab a crutch."

I felt then that Salome was, quite possibly, the perfect introductory opera: It has a familiar story; it has the dance of the 7 veils; it has a libretto that might as well actually have Oscar Wilde's name on it; and it's only about 90 minutes long. I still think it has big potential in that regard, but leave it to the all-Russian design team to play up just how challenging it is.

For the most part, I'm talking musically here, not thematically. In der bombastische Versuche, Mary Ann Smart notes the disconnect between the scandalized critics and theater big wigs, and the general public who ate up the dysfunction with a slurpee straw, demanding 38 curtain calls on opening night. For 21st century audiences, I don't think there's much in Salome that hasn't been multiply made into Lifetime movies with Judith Light, Farah Fawcett, and Meredith Baxter Birney. If there are any thematic challenges left, they're likely related to the ongoing political chatter in the background of the movie of the week, rather than to
The executions of the two principal characters, an incest-tinged [tinged? I'd call that robustly tie-dyed, myself – ed.] striptease, and a climactic aria of necrophiliac ecstasy sung by a teenager."

And despite the proto-Springer qualities of it all, there are some concessions to propriety that are almost quaint or would be if the didn't reflect individual lives mired in the morality of the day. (For example, Strauss followed Wilde in having the Page in love with Nabarroth be female, to avoid any unpleasantly pointed conversations about homosexuality.)

Still, for a 90-minute opera, it demands a tremendous amount of the performers (orchestra and stage alike) and of the audience. Although my having been raised in the Reagan era has left me with a reflexive tendency to blame the Russians for everything, I must admit that my perception of Salome as musically challenging on this go around is strongly colored by my now living in a post-Der Rosenkavalier. I'm rather perversely pleased that Salome, at least premiere-wise, was pre-Der Rosenkavalier.

I like the idea that Strauss offered this up in 1905, and they came in droves, then went Old School on their asses in 1911, and they came in droves. (I like a lot less, of course, the fact that Der Rosenkavalier ended up being, more or less, Strauss's last word on the subject of Old and Busted versus New Hotness, but what can you do?) I like that an old and eternally new medium like opera found itself in step with the totally revolutionary artistic medium of film.

And since I'm wading into the pop culture of the turn of the last century, I guess the fact that I'd just seen the entirely unchallenging, musically speaking, Il trovatore earlier in the week also influenced my Strauss receptors. Particularly in the wake of Verdi's apparent belief that "corners are not conducive," Strauss seems to over a musical living room filled entirely with sharp-cornered furniture exactly at shin height. But in a pleasant way, you understand—a way that is stimulating and cerebrally challenging. As L pointed out, he's quite deliberately cribbing from himself at several points. At others, he will crib from himself in the future, and the future will crib from him. It's the aural equivalent of the Kevin Bacon game, and it's cool.

The design of this production was similarly . . . challenging. And surely no one will think that I'm being euphemistic or polite after my balls-out cattiness over the Jesus atrocity in Il trovatore. The design here (George Tsypin, set; Tatiana Noginova, costumes; James F. Ingalls, lighting) certainly has its hits and misses. It even has something that evoked painful memories of the baffling central marital aid from The Midsummer Marriage, but it was at least unified and coherent in its way.

Of course, we're talking about a single set for Salome, so unity should be a given. I should begin by saying that this set began by making promises of a revolvial nature and then failed to come through on this. And yet, I didn't hate it. The defining feature of the set was the scrims stretched over frames set in an arc covering about 240° of a circle, with 120° open to downstage. Internal to this were Y-shaped supports, some upright, others inverted. These supports could just as easily be hidden entirely as the right lighting could make it appear as if the whole set were juddering apart as the seventh trumpet sounds—kind of the Apple Store at the End of the Universe.

The semicircle was fronted by semitransparent columns (material unknown) of various heights and in various phases of breakage and decay. Atop the semicircle was a catwalk following its outline. All of these features facilitated the subtextual conversations, watching from afar, lofty musings on law and politics, etc. In the center of the set was a cylinder of scrim representing the Prophet Containment Unit and Locust Deployment Apparatus, aka the cistern. The entrance to it was upstage, although some strange lighting occasionally made it appear as if there were an archway offering admission from downstage (this does not seem to have been the case, as everyone walked around it and upstage to enter, which made for some awkward blocking).

Within it, the back half of the cylinder was solid floor, but the front half was a multilevel elevator, rounded on the front, flat at the back and as wide as the diameter of the cistern itself. Evocations of the Marital Aid were bad enough when we had static cistern. When people started riding up and down, plunging into the depths of the rotunda, then emerging, um . . . well, yeah. And then there's Deborah Voigt's cage dancing within it at the climax of the Dance of the Seven Veils. It's possible I lost a little piece of me right then and there, and I ain't gettin' that baby back.

Leaving aside my trauma on the off chance that not everyone is fascinated by it (bitches), the cistern design, of course, has Jochanaan (the Baptist) off stage for most of his already infrequent singing. Certainly, this makes the lighting shifts eerily effective—it's when the prophet speaks that the cracks in the world of this fucked up family literally show—we have the "singing from within a coffee can" problem. I don't remember a whole lot about the staging of my previous Salome, but I do recall that they raised a chunk of the stage above the cistern so that my Welsh bass-baritone's pretty little head was not below stage. This is a solution that we at the back of the first balcony prefer to not hearing much of anything.

But let's face it, it's all about Salome. The Prophet is brought up to the main stage, in toto or severally, for his most relevant parts, so I'm quibbling over the cistern. As strange as the set design is, it is effective. It evokes Samson's Temple (although the design choice to have Jochanaan tethered with fire hoses held by supers was a little on the nose in that regard: We got it. Kthxbye) and the rending of the Temple's curtain at the moment of Christ's death. It smacks of golden calves and money lenders and monotheism on the verge of something . . . well . . . monumental. It maintains the unity of set that the story demands, it provides a canvas large enough to convey the scope of changes that will be wrought, but it still facilitates intimate moments, spying, eavesdropping, imperial space, proletariat space, polytheist space, monotheist space, and so on. It still brings the petty, and that's key given how little play these events and the Baptist himself get in the gospels.

Some of the costuming and other elements of the design were not so wholly impressive to me. Despite what Lyric is obviously selling in the press for this opera (namely, Nekkid!Deborah!Voigt, post-gastric bypass), they gave Salome back-up dancers for The Dance. It's not an approach I'd favor (it's hard for me to see Herod so bewitched and sucked in [as it were] in a crowd), but I certainly have tried my best to take it in before making judgments. Unfortunately, once the first, most apiary, of the veils came off, it was clear that someone was unduly influenced by some dreadful nexus of Maleficent, The Beast from Angel Season Suck (not that that clears things up), and some supers from the Mos Eisley Cantinas. They had theses curled, horn-cowl atrocities that must have easily been 3 feet across. (Oh, thank heaven, you can see one on the floor there [but trust me, the scale is completely lost]. I didn't imagine it!) Voigt's head was mercifully bare, but sweet fancy Jeebus, I'm not sure where the post-Chernobyl metaphor came from, but I wish it would go home.

A more neutral eyebrow was raised in the general direction of some of the other costuming. The Prophet is certainly dirty and scabby enough that he's believable as a bug eater and there's some compensatory semi-holy flesh on display courtesy of his artful loincloth. On the same note, dressing the soldiers as shirtless stage beef in minimal Jaffa armor added a good, decadent touch to the proceedings. The Jews, Nazarenes, etc., were a little more invasive. The Nazarenes were done up from head to toe in purples and browns, down to body make-up. The Jews were aquatic. No really. I don't know what kind of mindset moves one to take a nomadic desert people and depict them in blues and greens, then top them off with sea-shell-reminiscent headgear, and "Russian" seems inadequate as an explanation. I get that we're going for "alien" "factional" "no common ground" and "genocide," but . . . huh?

Herod's costuming, on the other hand, was magnificent. He had this superfly peacock sombrero and it is a crime that none of the photos feature it. Silvestrelli's Il Trovatore costume is dead to me. I need. that. hat. Poor Herodias was somewhat downplayed in terms of costume, but once that hat existed, all other costumes just had to get out of the way.

Turning to vocal performances at long last, I feel like a complete heel remarking on this, given the hullaballoo over Voigt, her weight loss, etc.—Voigt is a bit . . . erm . . . mature for Salome. For the most part, I mean that vocally, although I will note that as much of a hottie as the costuming reveals her to be in up-close photos, that did not translate at all well at a distance. That empire waist with a tragic Maude vest buttoned over it would have been hard-pressed to stir lust for the adolescent in even Woody Allen, and the restraint of her red tresses on stage didn't help much.

But honestly, it's her vocal command and her superior stage presence that make her a hard sell as Salome. Salome is powerful, but bumbling. She needs to be exploring the boundaries and potential of her sexuality right before our eyes. She needs to hold Herod in her decidedly ooky thrall, but the audience still needs to feel that she is a moment away from becoming his victim in the most brutal possible way. Voigt's Salome would grind Herod beneath her heel and be looking around for her next victim before he'd taken his last gasp. Voigt's Salome would set Herodias to knitting in the old folks' home with a glance. For me personally, it doesn't help that her vocal style is not entirely to my tastes. She's into purposeful technique and rigidly controlled drama, whereas I prefer the sweeping intensity of Mattila or the energy and charm of Graham.

The preceding is not intended as a slight on either Kim Begley (Herod) or Judith Forst (Herodias), either. They're stalwart, impressive vocal performers and skilled actors. In particular, their banter and physicality with one another was quite a pleasure to watch. I wouldn't even say there was a conflict of skill between these two and Voigt so much as one of scale. Voigt goes to eleven, and no mistake. Begley and Forst are convincingly hapless and choiceless, paddling in Salome's considerable wake. In this production, there is very little room to interpret Salome's demand as the result of manipulation by her mother. It's more satisfying in some ways, but leaves Herodias looking more pathetic than is perhaps fair when she triumphs at Salome's choice.

Alan Held as Jochanaan manages not to consist entirely of dreadlocks and filth, which is saying something. In the Terfel/Malfitano production, Jochanaan is so neat and cuddly that I admit there are some issues (which doesn't at all mean that I don't appreciate the photo of them kind of cuddling that is provided alongside the Pompous Essay. So cute!) This production may have gone a touch too far in the other direction, particularly by giving Held blocking that must have been a bitch to master for both him and his handlers (negotiating the long, long tethers on a round stage filled with obstacles is a friend to no one). He does stand up remarkably well to Voigt's Salome. There were only one or two moments at which I wanted to shout: "Are you MAD? Give in! She'll kill us all!" And that's saying something.

In the secondary roles, Joseph Kaiser demands special mention as Narroboth. The role is certainly written in way that works well with a Salome of Voigt's ferocity, but Kaiser brought more to the hopeless would-be lover than that. His conflict felt genuine, and he managed to physically convey his investment in the broader goings-on at court. In the end, the death of such an astute, intelligent, and ambitious soldier felt like a real loss, rather than the first body of many to litter the stage.

The aquatic Jews were played by some old and new favorites: Daniel Cangelosi, having recovered his physical form after some awkwardness in Turandot negotiated his bizarre costume and blocking well; A Cangelosi-Rodell Rosel crossover event is getting to be one of my favorite things EVAR (and not just for the euphony) of their names; I've almost stopped thinking of Bryan Griffin as an animated dog; and John Easterlin and Wilbur Pauley can join that trio of Jews any time. In all seriousness and with full apologies to the last two for their "And the Rest" status, the bizarre costuming DID have the salutory effect of really making the Jews focal, and they worked effectively together, both physically and vocally.

On the whole, as my Welsh bass-baritone boyfriend's Salome goes, so goes my nation. That's mostly because of my shallowness, but also because I really do think that the previous production was superior musically if less brain-stimulating visually. It's also a wistful, nostalgic preference: I was stupid and inexperienced enough back then to take this all in at a "Song! Pretty!" level. But there's been a lot of opera under the bridge for me since then, and I find myself compelled to think and think hard. ('Cause, like, man, I'm like SO DEEP. Nobody gets me, man!) Ok, I'm officially over myself now. And posting this entry, which, for the record, was about three weeks in the making (sure, it was 30 minutes of actual writing, but you've gotta figger in all that THINKING).

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