The Metropolitan Opera has been staging Salome, the Strauss shocker, in the 2004 production by Jürgen Flimm. I attended last Friday night.
What you need in a Salome is a Salome, and the Met had Patricia Racette, the American soprano. About twelve years ago, a singer friend of mine made a statement to me: “I don’t think there’s a singer I would rather hear today, regularly, than Pat Racette.” It was not a dumb statement, at all.
Racette is older now, of course—how does that happen?—and there is a wobble in her voice. This wobble is sometimes hard to overlook. But the voice is beautiful—strong and beautiful—and the operatic sense is sure. Racette knows who this little Salome is and how to sing and act her.
I will make the terrible confession that I did not expect Racette’s dance—the Dance of the Seven Veils—to be sexy. I can make this confession because, in fact, it was: the dance was quite sexy.
For Salome, you need a Salome, of course, but you also need a Herod. Indeed, until Friday night, I don’t think I had realized how much singing Herod has to do. As much as Salome? Almost as much? You could have called the opera Herod.
The role was filled by Gerhard Siegel, the German tenor, whom I reviewed as recently as last summer (in Die Liebe der Danae, another Strauss opera). He made a splendid Herod. Siegel seems to be a rare, rare animal: a character tenor with a first-class voice.
It was good to hear German out of his mouth. And he had the measure of Herod, that nasty king, tormented by lust for his niece and stepdaughter (i.e., Salome). In appearance and movements, Siegel was like some twisted Jackie Gleason.
Googling around, I find that I have reviewed Siegel in this role before. He sang it in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall during the 2013-14 season: “Making the most out of the role of Herod was Gerhard Siegel.” Yes, that sounds right.
And how about this from the 2003–4 season? I was reviewing a Ring at the Met: “Scoring a huge hit as Mime was Gerhard Siegel, a German tenor. It was hard to imagine that one could do more with that part. So excellent was he in Siegfried, you might have called that opera Mime.”
So, at least I am consistent. Actually, Herr Siegel is.
As long as I am googling, let me quote from a 2005 review of a Met Rigoletto. I said, “The mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera made a smoky and sexy Maddalena.” This same mezzo was Herodias in Salome—smoky and sexy, yes, but older of course, and the mother: the mother of a girl who out-smokes and out-sexes all. Herrera was just right in this peculiar, hard-to-get part.
A much different part is Jochanaan (John the Baptist), who on this night was portrayed by Zeljko Lucic, the Serbian baritone. He was not always accurate in his singing. But he was always dignified, noble.
There was some luxury casting on this night. The famed Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko took the First Nazarene. And, for my money, Richard Bernstein, the American bass, is always luxury casting. He was the Second Soldier. What a rich instrument he has, year after year.
Of note was a newcomer, Kang Wang, who sang Narraboth, the Captain of the Guard. He is a Chinese-Australian tenor, and he owns an exceptional instrument. A beautiful one.
I have said that you need a Salome for Salome. And a Herod for Salome. You really need a conductor, for he is the straw that stirs the drink, in virtually every opera. He is the one who sets the tone, the one on whom virtually everything depends. He was Johannes Debus, and he did a fine job.
Debus is a German and the music director of the Canadian Opera Company, in Toronto. He was alive to Strauss’s score. A conductor of this score must keep it alive. He was especially good in sections requiring precision and deftness. His Dance of the Seven Veils could have been more erotic, more alluring, frankly.
I have a memory of Lorin Maazel. One night in Salome, he was really on, and I said, “The Dance of the Seven Veils should have come in a brown paper wrapper.”
The Met orchestra under Debus was virtuosic and alert. The woodwinds were outstanding, expressing that Straussian squirminess. The brass were fat and admirably unforced. At times, Salome seemed a tone poem, with some accompanying singers. And Debus showed what controlled madness is.
I wish to make a point about the production. In the story, Herod is promising Salome anything and everything, as long as it’s not Jochanaan’s head. He will give her even the Veil of the Temple. In the production, one of the Five Jews runs off, on hearing this. He runs off in horror.
Last Friday night, the audience laughed. And understandably. I’m not sure laughter is what’s wanted here.
Finally, I must address the Final Scene, that great piece for soprano and orchestra. I refer to it as “the mad Liebestod.” It is one of the most beautiful, weird, and gripping things in opera. On this occasion, it was a letdown, frankly. Biting parts were not biting enough, rhapsodic parts were not rhapsodic enough. The music was deficient in sensuality, excitement, release. The scene was wayward, out of shape. It is the climax of the opera and it was anti-climactic, in my judgment.
I’m sorry to say so, because otherwise this was an excellent performance. But there it is . . .