`Salome' simply seethes with sensuality

MUSIC REVIEW

Washington Opera production puts Valayre in sizzling role

Music review

April 12, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Long before the dawn of shock movies, there was shock opera. Nearly a century later, Richard Strauss' Salome can still stun and inflame the senses.

Things certainly get pretty hot in the Washington Opera's production at the Kennedy Center. It offers a physically ideal soprano who truly inhabits the title role and an unabashed emphasis on the raw sexual current that relentlessly propels Salome to its gruesome conclusion.

Slyvie Valayre's voice cannot always slice through Strauss' beefy orchestra or produce a tingly sensation with its tonal brilliance. That sort of sound, alas, has pretty much disappeared since Birgit Nilsson retired from the stage years ago. But this French singer possesses a combination of talents that fits the role snugly.

Except for a few signs of wear near the end of Tuesday's performance, Valayre sounded remarkably fresh and firm. She didn't let a note pass without conveying its message.

During the wonderfully hideous scene when Salome comes on to Jokanaan (John the Baptist), the soprano caressed the lyrical lines with great suggestiveness and spat out the venomous ones to electric effect.

When she tapped a shunning Jokanaan on the shoulder, trying to get his attention, this really was a spoiled rotten teen-age princess used to being the center of attention. As Jokanaan, falling to his knees and stretching out his arms in prayer, urged her to seek forgiveness from the man in a boat on the sea of Galilee, she imitated his movements, more in awe than mockery.

Her subsequent epileptic-like fit turned her, for an instant, into a strangely sympathetic figure. The Dance of the Seven Veils was a little tepid but had its allure. And when this Salome sat on the floor, legs akimbo around the silver tray holding the prophet's head, her feet keeping time to the music, there was something at once grotesque and, forgive me, almost endearing about the image.

It was entirely believable that Narraboth, Herod's captain of the guard, would commit suicide over Salome in a flash of jealousy. It's a wonder more bodies didn't litter the stage.

These days, at least a semi-hunky baritone is commonly cast as Jokanaan, someone who can live up to Salome's panting over his hair "like the cluster of black grapes" and mouth "like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory." The stocky Jan-Hendrik Rootering did not quite fit her descriptions, but I found that the disparity only underlined the bizarre nature of Salome's lust and Jokanaan's inability to comprehend it.

Rootering sang with warmth and conviction, if not always with all the desired power. (He gives his last performance tonight; Richard Paul Fink will sing the rest of the run.)

The role of Herod suited veteran Wagnerian tenor Rene Kollo well. An occasional problem in the highest range never detracted from the colorful inflections in his phrasing. Catherine Keen was a vivid Herodias in voice and action. Corey Evan Rotz sang Narraboth's lines in sweet, well-focused tones. The rest of the cast proved sturdy.

Heinz Fricke conducted a lush and disciplined orchestra with authority and sensitivity.

The fluid direction of David Kneuss artfully complements the elegant scenic design (John Bury), costumes (Elizabeth Bury) and lighting (Joan Sullivan-Genthe). Questionable images: Salome's straddling Jokanaan during their confrontation scene and turning her demise into an awkward bit of ballet.

But, ultimately, the production fulfills Wilde's extraordinary theatrical vision as persuasively as it delivers Strauss' musical punch.

Salome

Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington

When: 8 tonight, Thursday and April 25; 7 p.m. Monday, 2 p.m. April 21

Tickets: $63 to $280

Call: 800-876-7372

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