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I Don’t Care If She Sings Good: Don’t Take Her To The Party!

New York
Metropolitan Opera
09/23/2008 -  & Sept. 26, 30, Oct. 4, 7, 11, 16
Richard Strauss: Salome, op. 54
Karita Mattila (Salome), Ildikó Komlósi (Herodias), Kim Begley (Herod Antipas), Juha Uusitalo (Jokanaan), Joseph Kaiser (Narraboth), Lucy Schaufer (The Page of Herodias), Allan Glassman, Mark Schowalter, Adam Klein, John Easterlin, James Courtney (Five Jews), Morris Robinson, Donovan Singletary (Two Nazarenes), Keith Miller, Richard Bernstein (Two Soldiers), Reginal Braithwaite (Executioner)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Patrick Summers (Conductor)
Jürgen Flimm (Production), Santo Loquasto (Set and Costume Designer), James F. Ingalls (Lighting Designer), Doug Varone (Choreographer)

K. Mattila (© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

So King Herod is holding this very proper dinner party on the verandah of his desert palace. His guest are formal, but he has invited five token Jews (complete with yamakas and Hassidic black suits) and his wife looks terrific in a green evening dress.

But who’s missing? Herod’s lovely 16-year-old stepdaughter, who is playing with the guards out by the old wishing-well. As the guests depart, Herod goes out to get her, and …...Whoops!!! Herod slips on a little blood. In fact, by the time Salome has finished this incredible opera, she has generated one suicide, one grisly execution, and (while not shown in this production) a murder as well. Nor is necrophilia is not to be sneezed at.

The Met’s opening opera, after Monday’s gala, could be one of the most riveting one-act operas in the repertory. With a few exceptions, this was mild-mannered, pretty easy to see and wonderful to hear. Blood-curdling, scandalous, even sexual, it was not.

Missing the perversions is difficult, since Strauss knew murder, passion and grisly torture (musically speaking) as well as Berlioz. And Salome still has moments of decadence a century after its composition.

Certainly Salome has its highlights. A beautiful design with a shimmering desert, a sky of shooting stars radiating the , limitless blue. A half-dozen seraphim with large wings come float above the sand dune at times, but they were not distracting.

The highlights included the Met Orchestra whose horns—six of which have to play important motifs—making nary an error, with scalding woodwinds and fine stings. Conductor Patrick Summers hardly gave it the essential flames, and the last moments of thundering chords were rather namby-panby. Yet the sounds did glitter.

But of course the major highlight was the great Finnish soprano Karita Matilla, who could blow the house down in all shades and tones. She could be icy driving a hard bargain with her step-father Herod. She could be obsessively lecherous with the “bitter taste” of the dead lips of Jokanaan.

Most important, she had a character which was not evil (not entirely), not crazy (well, not until the end), and quite enchanting. As a 16-year-old, she was a bit ditzy, a kid curious as to who was living in a cistern, then entranced with this strange big guy who came out of the ground. Ms. Matilla here knows her charm, and imagines it’s a snap to seduce this weird troglodyte, bottle of Champagne in hand.

Beginning as a teenage groupie to the horrors of avoiding her step-father (with his “mole eyes”) to what seems like a sudden impulse to get the head of the mendicant , to the final Mad Scene, sung with the passion of an Isolde, takes some genius, and this singer has it.

But the direction of this production doesn’t go along with the passion. Jürgen Flimm soft-pedals the stage movements, he keeps the unsuccessful seduction under mild wraps, and the climax where Salome is supposed to crushed, is simply inconclusive. She still lives.

The Dance of the Seven Veils may have scandalized the Metropolitan audiences of 1909 (the next production was a quarter-century later), but both music and dancing seem innocent here. Of course every movie composer until recently more or less cribbed this ersatz exotica for any Middle Eastern scenes, but no singer can be less than embarrassed by even the most dangerous choreography.

Ms. Mattila hardly looks sweet 16, but her body is in terrific shape, and that one peek at frontal nudity (before being covered up) was enchanting. Otherwise, the dance was a sad mélange of styles. At times she resembled Cyd Charisse in a cocktail dress (with the usual pair of male gigolos), she aroused poor Herod like Marlene Dietrich teased Emil Jannings in Blue Angel, and at times she slapped herself against the cistern poles, like a Patpong Road stripper in Bangkok.

Fortunately, once this was over, Ms. Mattila went obsessive, and then insane. It must be great soprano’s dream to sing those fateful words, “Ich will den Kopf den Jochanaan!” (Give me the head of Jochanaan) eight or nine times. She started like a little girl, actually braiding her head, then repeated the words softer, harder, with the lunatic orchestration bringing out the horror.

While Finnish, not Scandinavian, Ms. Matilla has that cool, clear voice which enchants and freezes at the same time, and it was wonderful to see her in just the right role.

Kim Begley’s Herod was not quite a Serva Pardona love-lorn loon. Sober, dressed in all-white, he looked like Burl Ives as Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. But the portly ruler, when drunk, was more like Sir Ralph Richardson or Robert Morley at times. It was not the most riveting performance, but Mr. Begley’s voice was magisterial, perhaps too stentorian for this very character.

His wife, Herodias, played by Ildikó Komlósi, looked the part of the pouting mother, and her singing was tough and single-minded. The the second Finn of the production, Juha Uusitalo, looked part John the Baptist, part Hell’s Angel, his voice portentous and full. Finally, we have Joseph Kaiser as the unfortunate Narraboth, the one who truly loves Salome. His tenor was not ringing, but his is a droopy character.

The opera itself is so gripping that not even the pedestrian direction can take away its power. This was Richard Strauss the theatre-men, the young genius who could do anything, Strauss the artist-voyeur who insisted reproducing passion, prurience and violence with the same energy. If the Met’s is more enervation than energy, the music and the extraordinary Ms. Matilla make it a fascinating experience.

Harry Rolnick



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