Friday, January 19, 2007

After a relatively quiet season thus far, the National Symphony Orchestra pulled out the aural pyrotechnics Thursday evening with a brilliantly realized concert version of Richard Strauss’ one-act opera “Salome.” Headlined by a stellar cast including standout Met soprano Deborah Voigt in the title role and distinguished baritone Alan Held as Jokanaan (John the Baptist), this concert is 2007’s first can’t-miss event.

“Salome,” a roughly 90-minute work performed without intermission, is Strauss’ operatic realization of Oscar Wilde’s eponymous play. Originally penned in French and later published in an English version adorned with Aubrey Beardsley’s famous drawings, Wilde’s drama is a scandalous interpretation of a story from the gospel of Mark. The short biblical tale relates how Herodias, wife of King Herod Antipas, urges her daughter to demand the head of John the Baptist, who is imprisoned in the palace. Wilde’s play places the blame for John’s beheading on the lustful princess, Salome, which ultimately leads to a famously grotesque final embrace. (The rarely seen drama was memorably performed in 1997 by the now defunct Le Neon theater troupe in Arlington.)

Strauss’ lush score, rich in daring, extended tonality, strongly foreshadows his later operatic masterpiece, “Der Rosenkavalier.” In a concert opera setting, it becomes considerably easier to appreciate the seamless, imaginative treatment Strauss gives this material, and it was accorded a nearly flawless performance by the NSO Thursday evening. Under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, the orchestra played with extreme confidence and control, romantic here, dissonant there, and erupted periodically with a cascading palette of tonal colors, ranging from shimmering harp figures to disrespectful snarls from the contrabassoon and bass clarinet.

Dramatically, Strauss’ “Salome” is a series of increasingly manic vocal exchanges between the title character and three male antagonists, leading to the deaths of two and the humiliation of the third. As Salome, the inexhaustible Miss Voigt is onstage and singing throughout most of the evening. Her Salome stealthily evolves, morphing from naive young girl into sexual predator, expanding vocally from lyric tenderness to Wagnerian power and majesty.

Salome’s growing obsession with Jokanaan first drives Narraboth, a starstruck young Syrian court official, to briefly release the prophet. However, the princess’s bizarre behavior drives the decent man — sensitively interpreted by young tenor Jason Collins — to suicide.

Salome’s resulting exchange with Jokanaan causes the prophet to denounce, with ever-increasing intensity, the decadence of the pagan court. No one is better suited to this role than Alan Held, who polished his career at Wolf Trap in the 1980s and went on to become one of this generation’s finest Wagnerian baritones. (He will return to Washington this spring to sing Wotan in the Washington National Opera’s “Die Walkure.”) Mr. Held’s thundering, authoritative voice embodies the wrath of the Almighty, bringing palpable fear and consternation to the court.

As Miss Voigt’s final antagonist, Herod, Donald Litaker’s agile yet robust tenor voice excels in portraying the king as a rough but henpecked husband and stepfather whose own sexual weaknesses are deftly manipulated by Salome and by his wife, Herodias, sung in a marvelously florid and catty mezzo by Jane Henschel.

Performances repeat tonight and Monday, and tickets are available.

**** WHAT: Richard Strauss’ “Salome” (concert version)

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

WHEN: Today at 1:30 (matinee) and Monday at 8 p.m.

TICKETS: $47-$85.

PHONE: 202/467-4600


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