Sunday, June 21, 2009

Salome

I went to see Opera Theatre of St. Louis' production of Salome with some trepidation.  The prior week I had seen La Boheme, expecting to be enchanted, and ended up leaving early.  I had never seen an entire production of Salome.  (I had seen a dress rehearsal of a production in DC back in the late 1970's.) I knew I didn't care for the music of Richard Strauss as much as I love Puccini and the religious story wasn't really of interest to me.  On the other hand, the folks at OTSL constantly amaze me so I knew it was possible that I would end up loving it.

And I did.

Salome was, in my opinion, one of the best operas that OTSL has ever produced.  And what a surprise that is.  It is a difficult opera.  Strauss' music requires a soprano in the role of Salome who has a strong legitimate voice and yet the role is that of a teenager mesmerized by her own sexuality and the erotic feelings she is having.  It is difficult to find a soprano who can sing the part who also looks the part. 

Enter Kelly Kaduce.  I can't say enough about her performance.  I had seen her before and enjoyed her.  She gave a beautiful performance as Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly.  She gave a riveting interpretation of Anna in Colin Graham's last production, Anna Karenina.  In 2006 she starred in the production of Jane Eyre.   But her performance as Salome took things to a different level.

First, of course, she sounded gorgeous.  I'm not sure she has a big enough voice to do Salome on the great stages of the world, she probably should stick with Puccini and some of the modern operas. But her voice was perfect for the confines of The Loretto Hilton Theater where OTSL performs.  Second, she is small enough and lithe enough to be a believable teenager.   Those two traits combined might have been enough to make this an excellent performance.  But, it turns out she can also dance.   Or, at least, dance well enough to do a very believable Dance of the Seven Veils. 

In the end though, what made this a stellar evening was the fact that she is a singer who can act.  From the moment she took the stage through the last mesmerizing twenty minutes as she made love to the severed head of John the Baptist she grabbed the spotlight and never let go.  She acted the hell out of a difficult role.  Salome is on stage for almost the entire length of this two hour opera that runs without an intermission.  During a long period in the middle she is on stage but has nothing to sing while her mother and step-father sing over her.  Kaduce was never out-of-character.

It is a difficult monstrous character to play.  And in the end Kaduce made Salome the monster she was and yet ... maybe if Salome had a different mother ... or maybe if Salome hadn't had a lecherous stepfather ... or maybe if Salome hadn't been born with all the power of a princess ... maybe, maybe, maybe .. she might have been different.  Kaduce layered the character the way a dramatic actress might and in a way that few opera singers are capable of doing. 

The rest of the cast was fabulous.  Maria T. Zifchak, as Salome's horrible mother, was especially good and her diction was perfect (I vividly remember her as the witch in Hansel and Gretel, she just has the perfect voice for evil).  Michael Hayes played a very nuanced Herod.  Gregory Dahl as the John the Baptist character was more earthy than I had imagined the role being.  The set worked perfectly.  The severed head with the blood dripping slowly from it was appropriately gruesome. The direction was superb.  The director, Sean Curran, is also a choreographer and it showed.  Not just in The Dance of the Seven Veils but in the way that key actions were timed to the music. 

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Stephen Lord in the orchestra pit was, as always, a joy to watch.  He controlled the orchestra and the production with a gentle but sure hand, as usual.     

Click through to watch OTSL's trailer for Salome to see what I mean.  (I like this portion of OTSL's website but I wish OTSL would allow the trailers to be embedded so that they could be shared easily on facebook and on blogs). There is also a longer documentary for those who are interested which, among other things, shows how they made the head and got the blood to drip out.

One final thought.  I never realized before that Salome, written by the German composer Richard Strauss, is based on a French language play by, of all people, Oscar Wilde.  If he truly imagined the blood soaked Salome with her tongue down the throat of John the Baptist's severed head, he's a more complex playwright than I ever realized.

There are two more performances of Salome before the season ends.  I'm tempted to go again.