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A Slow Start Worth the Wait

Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts
03/19/2011 -  & March 23*, 26, 28, 31, 2011
Richard Strauss: Salome
Nicola Beller Carbone (Salome), Robert Hayward (Jokanaan), John Mac Master (Herod), Judith Forst (Herodias), Roger Honeywell (Narraboth), Chantal Denis (Herodias’ page), Isaiah Bell (1st Jew), Riccardo Iannello (2nd Jew), Gaétan Sauvageau (3rd Jew), Thomas McLeay (4th Jew), Philippe Martel (5th Jew), Sébastien Ouellet (1st Nazarene), Pierre-Etienne Bergeron (2nd Nazarene), Taras Kulish (1st soldier), Normand Richard (2nd soldier), Geoffroy Salvas (Cappadocian)
Orchestre Métropolitain, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), José Miguel Esandi (assistant conductor)
Sean Curran (director and choreographer), Bruno Schwengl (sets and costumes), Paul Palazzo (lighting), Louise-Andrée Baril (rehearsal pianist)

N. Beller Carbone (Courtesy of Opéra de Montréal)

Opéra de Montréal’s new Salome (co-produced with Opera Theater of St. Louis and San Francisco Opera) experienced a long, shaky start on Wednesday evening. In fact, it only took off with Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils. But what a flight it was – eminently worth the wait!

Until then, the production was held back by several factors. Voices often projected poorly (Roger Honeywell as Narraboth, Chantal Denis as Herodias’ page). The stage production was uneven. Extras were seemingly lost in space. Later, no one expressed concern while Herod was choking while prostrate on the floor. Costumes came from every period imaginable. John Mac Master as Herod appeared to be the only character in correct period dress (and that was too large). And the huge set dwarfed the participants (especially the diminutive Nicola Beller Carbone as Salome). The set could, perhaps, have been meant to emphasize the pitiful state of the human characters. Also problematic in the first hour or so was the jarring contrast between the booming bass-baritone of Robert Hayward as Jokanaan, who overwhelmed everyone else, and the spinto soprano Carbone, who took quite a while to find her voice.

The set (by Bruno Schwengl) was a cutaway of what could have been the interior of a sewer (other possibilities are the space under a highway overpass or the interior of a concrete bunker). From stage right the characters entered from a drainpipe or culvert (a neat conceit - Freud would have loved this). Instead of the traditional cistern in the floor, Jokanaan was kept in a vault on the upstage wall in which he was curiously enclosed, not only by an over-sized manhole cover, but under that, by a giant aperture of a camera lens. This telescoping aperture, however, worked marvelously when it opened with the chilling drum roll onto the executioner. He held the severed head of Jokanaan in a bloody white cloth lighted dramatically against a black ground. This caused an audible shudder to race through the audience. (No credit was given in the program to the executioner.)

Strauss, who usually had difficulty finding appropriate Salomes, may not have wholeheartedly lauded Carbone’s performance of The Dance of the Seven Veils. He objected to dramatics in the dance – “no flirting with Herod, no playing to Jokanaan’s cistern”. Carbone did flirt with Herod, but on the whole danced with subtlety and grace, with hardly (except when she exposed herself to Herod) a vulgar or gratuitous moment.

As Strauss would have wished, Carbone delivered a light, capricious Salome. But this didn’t preclude her terrifying drive towards insanity in the final scene. This is where her piercing voice and consummate acting skills shone. With the support of the tense, but tempered, performance of Yannick Nézet-Séguin with his Orchestre Métropolitain, and fine acting from the hysterical Judith Forst as Herodias and the bewildered John MacMaster, the production soared. In this scene, the shivers were indeed running up and down our spines (helping to instigate, no doubt, the thirty-eight curtain calls at its 1905 premiere in Dresden).

The rich, resonating voice of the first soldier, bass Taras Kulish, was a treat. He is artistic director of the Green Mountain Opera Festival in Vermont. This young singer should be given meatier roles. The five arguing Jewish scholars also sang and acted with conviction.

The lighting by Paul Palazzo, by turns bathing the stage in grey, blue, gold, and red, reflected the changing action admirably.

Overall, this production painted a vivid portrait of obsession and decadence. A perfect conclusion to fin de siècle Vienna, its angry dissonances and angst still serve as a potent reminder of the fragility of our own times. For this we can deem the production a success.

Earl Arthur Love



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