Spectacle overshadows `Salome's weaknesses

The soprano and the severed head

MusicReview

March 15, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Within the span of about 90 minutes, Richard Strauss' Salome encapsulates the eternal tug of war between good and evil - and many gray shades in between. This 1905 opera, like the Oscar Wilde play that inspired it, provides a hallucinatory take on the familiar Bible story, creating a high-sensory realm where ideals and desires collide and collapse. Like a colossal car wreck, the appalling sight at the end has audiences craning their necks to see; it's impossible to look away.

The Baltimore Opera Company's production of Salome reconfirms the work's strange pull. Assorted weaknesses in the execution do not prevent the inexorable tragedy set in motion by Salome's teen-age crush on Jochanaan (John the Baptist).

Thanks particularly to conductor Christian Badea, the taut, hypnotic score registered strongly Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House. He was as compelling at evoking the moonlit, chamber music-colored opening scene as he was at unleashing the passionate insanity of Salome's love song to a severed head. (Badea got his sometimes spotty, but vibrant, orchestra to whomp wonderfully on the clash of two incompatible chords that says all there is to say after her last line.)

In the title role, Nina Warren sounded like she was fending off a cold. Some graininess crept into her voice; a little slippage of intonation and breath control also got in the way. But the soprano nonetheless rode the crest of the rich orchestration and nailed the opera's big moments quite tellingly; she sang the long final scene with intense theatricality (some of it curiously staged in the dark).

Although Warren passed over a few small, potentially arresting details (in the first scene, a mere "Ah!" from Salome can speak volumes, but made little impression here), she brought much to the music's light and dark shifts during the schizoid, writhing-on-the-floor scene when Salome pathetically attempts to win Jochanaan's interest. Her Dance of the Seven Veils, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, had a very workable combination of athleticism, grace and smut.

Chris Merritt was the perfect picture of self-indulgence as Herod - a bare, very fleshy chest; an absurd floral crown; yards of cape trailing behind him. Herod's unbecoming lust for stepdaughter Salome seemed all the more vile. But the characterization avoided caricature; here was a complex tetrarch, naive and imperious, spoiled and generous, steely and afraid. Merritt spoke or shouted a fair amount of his music, rather than zero in on the actual pitches Strauss wrote, but the result still counted as the most consistently potent and interesting vocalism of the evening.

The role of Herodias, Herod's far-from-pure wife, provided a showy vehicle for veteran soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones. She didn't exactly sing all of her notes, either, but the approximations had vintage fire. As Jochanaan, Jeffrey Kneebone had the physical stature and, for the most part, the vocal strength to suggest the prophet's threat to the immoral order.

As Narraboth, the captain of the guard overly smitten with Salome, James Cornelison set the opera in motion with a firm, beautifully sculpted, mood-setting phrase. Some of his subsequent singing did not match that quality, but his performance had presence.

Anna Niedbala was the dark-toned Page, overly smitten with Narraboth. (Here, the Page - originally a male character, though sung by a woman - was turned into a young girl, by all appearances. Strauss may have downplayed the homoerotic subtext in Wilde's play, but he didn't wipe it out.)

The five quarreling Jews, led by tenor John Weber, handled their assignments with flair, despite having ludicrous beards stuck to their chins. Franco Federici's weak sound did nothing for the First Nazarene's brief, but worthy, lines.

Played out on a modest, atmospheric unit set, the action unfolded straightforwardly under Bernard Uzan's direction. But too often, he set figures in static formations; he also left Herod and Herodias standing around awkwardly during the final minutes.

Salome

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 7:30 p.m. March 17, 8:15 p.m. March 19, 3 p.m. March 21

Tickets: $37 to $132

Call: 410-727-6000 or visit www.baltimoreopera.com

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