We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Alex Penda as Salome at Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard)

We have always thrilled to Richard Strauss' 1905 opera Salome but the current production at the Santa Fe Opera offered a fresh and Freudian interpretation by director Daniel Slater that kept us on the edge of our seat.  Mr. Slater chose to set the opera at the turn of the 20th c. when Freud's ideas about sexuality and the unconscious were still new and shocking but not yet accepted.  The titular character is revealed by some innovative staging to have observed her father's murder at the hands of her uncle Herod, the same tetrarch who now lusts for her.

This is a family right out of Krafft-Ebing. The lascivious tetrarch Herod makes no secret of his lust for his niece. Salome's mother is unsuccessful at reining him in. She believes that Salome wants Jochanaan's head out of loyalty to her because he has been cursing her from his place of imprisonment. It is not difficult to believe that Oscar Wilde penned the scandalous story on which the opera is based.

The air is heavy with lust.  Herod, Salome, and Naraboth, captain of the guard, are all passionate about beauty. Herod and Naraboth are both driven wild with desire for Salome who is similarly driven wild by lust for Jochanaan who is passionate only about his religious beliefs. Her perceived rejection by the prophet leads her to the final mad request for his head. Hell hath no fury, as they say!

The Dance of the Seven Veils, in Mr. Slater's version, has no veils and no nudity. Salome dances for her father using mainly her graceful arms in a most seductive way.  Part of the way through the dance, her mind drifts to her childhood memories of Herod murdering her father and leading her away. (Shades of Hamlet!) Although this is a directorial innovation, it seems right there in the music.

In the role of Salome, Alex Penda shines like the star that she is. She is sufficiently petite in form to convince as an adolescent with a powerful soprano that cuts right through Strauss' sizable orchestra. 

As Herod, tenor Robert Brubaker tackled the high-lying tessitura without strain and injected his character with a real personality--not a sympathetic one but an interesting one. He is clearly at odds with his wife Herodias; he is a bit frightened but also fascinated by Jochanaan and his preaching while Herodias is offended by Jochanaan's attacks on her and wants him eliminated. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens fulfilled her role in a most believable way. This is a marriage like many we have seen in contemporary times, a marriage in which husband and wife barely tolerate one another

Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny made a swell Jochanaan with his resonant portentous instrument.  He does not appear as a filthy starving prisoner chained in a cistern, but rather an intellectual writing at a desk in a room of the palace.  This of course goes a long way toward helping us understand Salome's attraction to his white skin, black hair and red lips.

The opera opens with tenor Brian Jagde as Captain of the Guard mooning over "die Prinzessin Salome".  Pun intended. He compares her to the moon. Page Megan Marino tries to talk him out of it. He kills himself when he realizes that she is lusting after the prophet and not him.  Mr. Jagde's singing was filled with luster and passion; we were sorry to lose him so early in the opera!

Just as Shakespeare provided comic relief in his tragedies, Salome provided a few giggles in the form of five Jews arguing theology. We were delighted to see several of our favorite apprentices in these roles: Christopher Trapani, Roy Hage, Cullen Gandy, Aaron Short, and Kevin Thompson. Nicholas Brownlee and Tyler Putnam appeared as soldiers.

We could not have asked for a better conductor than David Robertson who captured the passionate sweep of Strauss' thrilling music. Although this opera scandalized audiences at the time of it's premiere, it established Strauss' career as a composer of operas. The work has earned its place in the canon.

Set and Costume Design by Leslie Travers worked out well. We particularly liked Salome's virginal white dress and Herodias' elaborate gown. The men all wore military uniforms, replete with sashes, epaulettes and emblems. This only struck us as peculiar on the bodies of the five Jews!  Who knew that Jews were so honored in fin de siecle Austria!

(c) meche kroop

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