The Demented and the Divine

Jason Victor Serinus on October 19, 2009
A scene from Salome
Photos by Terrence McCarthy
“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death,” sings Salome, the eponymous central character in Richard Strauss’ 1905 opera. Debatable as the Judean princess’ assertion may be, there was no question that the smiles on the faces of many audience members at San Francisco Opera’s opening matinee after they had witnessed their third and final death in less than two hours confirmed that Strauss’ total immersion in sexual obsession, debauchery, and necrophilia hit the Freudian nail on the head.

Certainly, Music Director Nicola Luisotti did the same. Waving his baton in a decidedly non-Italianate manner, the man who told SFCV two months back (see our Feature) that Strauss expresses “the voice of God” brought the dark side of our God-given psyche out of the shadows. His strings had just the right searing tang, the triangle all the dazzle, and the drums all the booming finality that the score demands. Reveling in Straussian dissonance, greeting each burst of romantic excess with orgasmic exuberance, Luisotti made Salome’s dance with the bloody head of John the Baptist (Jokanaan) into a perverse joy ride that all but a demon-hiding evangelist preacher would admit watching with morbid fascination. Luisotti may have overpowered his singers at times, but the overwhelming message of his conducting was that no one, not even the man holding the baton, could stop the inexorable forces that drove Salome to her eventual doom.

Star Power to Burn

Nadja Michael as Salome
Central to the production’s estimable success, besides Luisotti and his 91-member orchestra, were soprano Nadja Michael (Salome) and bass-baritone Greer Grimsley (Jokanaan, aka John the Baptist). Michael, making her SFO debut, used her shiny blonde curls, alluring face and figure, and balletic physical dexterity to underscore Salome’s mania. Blessed with considerable bloom in the middle voice, giving her all until she tired noticeably toward the end of her demanding final scene, the mezzo-turned-soprano was able to devote considerable volume to both the low G-flat and high B’s of the role’s extremes. If she possesses neither the blood-curdling power of Birgit Nilsson nor the inherently demented sound of Ljuba Welitsch — Michael would sound just as convincing as Tosca — she certainly has the vocal, physical, and histrionic attributes of a riveting Salome.

Grimsley, like Michael, showed a fair amount of enticingly smooth flesh, and commanded the stage with his booming voice. In many ways Salome’s mirror opposite, he embodied the essence of the ecstatic, woman-fearing prophet who swings between visions of unions with God and pronouncements of evil.

Greer Grimsley as Jokanaan

Next to these two, the other singers came off as second best. It’s not clear how much of the responsibility was Luisotti’s, but when debut tenor Garrett Sorenson (singing the role of Narraboth) acknowledged the demonic energy that his uncontrollable obsession with Salome had unleashed, and then killed himself, his suicide seemed almost superfluous to the action at hand. Not that Sorenson doesn’t possess a fine, powerful voice. But something was missing from the portrayal of a character whose death seemed to matter not at all to the audience. Or is that the point Luisotti was intending to make?

Mezzo Irina Mishura (Herodias) could have done far more to make the blood curdle in our veins. The evil that she supposedly shares with Salome was projected neither in the voice nor in her far too attractive visage. Opposite her and Salome, Kim Begley as Herod seemed a pathetic wimp of a lush hardly capable of wearing the crown. More than his character doddered, with the voice barely carrying over the orchestra at crucial moments.

The production calls for 13 secondary characters, here sung by three Adler fellows, six artists making their SFO debut, and others who came through the Merola or Adler programs (or both). Although everyone performed capably, their voices had little chance of emerging with distinction amidst Luisotti’s rendition of Strauss’ glorious din.

Arrestingly Potent Production

Bruno Schwengl’s claustrophobically enclosed set, with its novel treatment of the cistern, benefited from lighting designer Christopher Maravich’s striking color changes. Preceding Salome’s bloody dance with striking golds and blues was as arresting as the accomplishments of Michael, Grimsley, and Luisotti.

Working with dance master Lawrence Pech, the debuting director and choreographer Sean Curran did a bang-up job with Salome’s oft-frenzied movements. Michael undoubtedly arrived in San Francisco with a host of already perfected gestures that included obsessively pulling her hair, moving restlessly from one end of the stage to the other before curling up into a motionless cocoon, and rocking back and forth in a manner consistent with mental illness. But Curran’s ability to integrate her gifts into the production, as well as to choreograph a marvelous “Dance of the Seven Veils” that ends in a brief full strip more suggestive than revealing, was exceptional.

The combustible combination of Michael, Grimsley, and Luisotti makes this Salome a must-see. With General Director David Gockley now batting five for five in the new season, only a strike-out Otello could prevent him from scoring the finest fall season for many a year at San Francisco Opera.

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