- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

The Washington Opera's production of Richard Strauss' extravagant one-act opera "Salome" dazzles with its acting and singing. This work has intermittently scandalized audiences for nearly a century, and there are bound to be a few people even today who will quibble with the company's current realization of it at the Kennedy Center Opera House, but this "Salome" provides a sensational evening of musical theater.

Based on Oscar Wilde's decadent drama, originally penned in French, Strauss' "Salome" was first performed in 1905. It was considered amoral in its day so much so that it was banned in many cities. The Metropolitan Opera felt forced to withdraw it immediately after its premiere in New York in 1907. Even today, with its confluence of quarrelsome Arabs and Jews and a thunderbolt-hurling pre-Christian prophet, the drama's plotline, based on historical events, can seem a little over the top.

"Salome" marked the first time Strauss was able to score a real success in opera. Before its composition, he had reached a plateau in his creative trajectory. He had tired of churning out the lavish orchestral tone poems that had won him his early fame. Seeking a new direction, he had tried his hand at opera, without much success. As a result, he was stubbornly determined to gain recognition with "Salome" and "Elektra," which was to follow. The works placed him in the vanguard of the European avant-garde, at least in terms of risque subject matter.

Strauss' music itself marked a departure from the late 19th-century norm. It skillfully blended lush, late Romanticism with jarringly dissonant, modern tone clusters, chords and motifs. In one brief opera, Strauss achieved a synthesis of Wagnerian imperial grandeur with the 20th-century's aristocratic putrescence, proving that atonality was not the only way to tear Victorian classical music loose from its traditional moorings.

"Salome" is minimalist opera in the sense that it has a small cast and action confined to a single, gradually unfolding scene of horror. It is based loosely on the death of John the Baptist, whom King Herod has executed as a result of the apparent whims of his stepdaughter, Salome. In the original story, she was put up to her murderous request by her scheming mother, Herodias, to gain revenge for the prophet's denunciation of the queen as an adulteress.

Wilde and Strauss took the standard plot closer to the edge. In both play and opera, Salome is clearly motivated by perverse, erotic, even necrophiliac impulses, and her mother plays a secondary role. Herod is actively interested in an incestuous relationship with Salome.

In addition to the strong sexual focus of "Salome," the work also carries disturbingly anti-religious undertones. In Wilde's play, John the Baptist, called Jochanaan, is, indeed, a prophet and crudely noble, as prophets often are, but in Strauss' realization, he is a blustery right-wing fanatic. The quarrelsome Jews who show up at the opera's midpoint, squabbling about useless theological nitpicks, are treated as buffoons.

The Washington Opera's revival of Sir Peter Hall's production of "Salome" is effective, but the sets and the costuming, by John and Elizabeth Bury respectively, are beginning to show their age.

Nonetheless, as always, opera comes down to the singing and the acting, and the company could scarcely have chosen a better cast. Veteran heldentenor Rene Kollo and mezzo-soprano Catherine Keen are superb in their smaller roles as the effete King Herod and his haughty wife. Bass Jan-Hendrik Rootering, another Wagnerian warrior, is spooky and authoritative in the limited but powerfully evocative role of Jochanaan.

Yet this short, intense opera has two primary stars: the orchestra and Salome. The substantially augmented Washington Opera Orchestra was, fortunately, in the capable hands of music director Heinz Fricke. The instrumental music of "Salome" in some ways is not far removed from Strauss' tone poems. It washes over the performance space with a lavish array of color splashes and mood swings and occasionally dominates the singers. Maestro Fricke has the strong hand needed to blend this ensemble. In the end, though, the night belongs to Salome, and the evening is made or lost on the talents of the singer who portrays her. Lovely French soprano Sylvie Valayre is not a Wagnerian soprano at least not yet and she was occasionally buried by the orchestra, but she is one brave and formidable singer and a tremendously sensuous actress.

Onstage and singing for nearly the entire opera, Salome has to perform the penultimate "Dance of the Seven Veils" and then with scarcely time to catch her breath sing a huge, concluding monologue. Miss Valayre must have an excellent personal trainer because she was able to achieve all of the above without apparent effort. Her notes were clear and well-shaped with no screeching. Her passionate love scene with Jochanaan's head brought the evening to a grisly musical climax. Brava.


***1/2

WHAT: "Salome"

WHERE: Kennedy Center

WHEN: 7 tonight and April 15, 8 p.m. this Tuesday and Friday and April 18 and 25, and 2 p.m. April 21

TICKETS: $40 to $280

PHONE: 202/295-2400

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