Saturday, October 11, 2008

Opera Review: Salome in Hi-Def

First, a note to the Met website people: please post the complete cast list, not just the principal artists. Because this information is unavailable, I'll have to refer to some performers by character name only.

Today's live high-definition broadcast of Richard Strauss' Salome from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera reminded me again how valuable this project is. In addition to being a front-row seat to a world-class performance at semi-reasonable prices ($24 in the movie theater, versus $275 for orchestra prime in the house), viewers get a rare chance to see what's going on behind the scenes at the performance. Salome, being a single, salacious one-acter, had no intermission features, but we were treated to a brief introduction by dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt moonlighting as host. We were there for the moment when the afternoon's star, soprano Karita Mattila, opened the door of her dressing room, beamed into the camera and said, in faintly Finnish-tinted English, "Let's kick ass!" as the camera followed her to the stage.

And kick ass, she did.

There's a special place in my heart for Salome, not just because it's kinda twisted: it was the occasion of my European debut in November 2000, in the teeny role of the Cappadocian at the Zurich Opera under the baton of Valery Gergiev. Plus, where else can you get a Bible story featuring nude dancing as told by Oscar Wilde and set to music by my favorite composer? How can you go wrong?

The amazing thing about Salome is that it still seems shocking and modern 103 years after its premiere. It's two decades older than Turandot, but still comes off edgy and risqué. The audience for today's broadcast at Cedar Mill Crossing in Beaverton -- also generally two decades older than Turandot -- visibly and audibly shifted in their seats in discomfort at some of the purpler moments. They may have thought they were ready to see a woman sing to a severed head (though, the lady behind me too loudly commented that the head in question was unnecessarily realistic), but they were unprepared for the subtitles to reveal just what it is that she's singing: "You would not let me kiss your mouth, Jochanaan, but I will kiss it now! I will bite it with my teeth, as one bites a ripe fruit." Good stuff.

In the title role, Karita Mattila gave a glorious performance. Previously when I have heard her live, especially in the similar role of Chrysothemis in the same composer's Elektra, her top lacked focus and could occasionally be dry and husky. Today, however, the highest notes were spun like shining silver threads, even as the high-definition close-ups revealed the physical effort it takes to sing this role. Her middle voice was plummy and opulent and her frequent forays into the chest register were strong and expressive; she sailed through both the high, light lyrical moments and the powerful outbursts of passion and fury. She was fascinating to watch, engaged in every moment; she was petulant, manipulative, charming, seductive, outrageous and unhinged. The opera world should be forever grateful that this artist has been captured for posterity in her prime in this role.

Unfortunately, as the object of her desire, baritone Juha Uusitalo disappointed. His voice lacked the magisterial depth and warmth of the role's greatest exponents, which robbed Jochanaan of his prophetic authority. Even if Strauss envisioned his Baptist as a pompous, sexophobic fundamentalist blowhard, he still wrote beautiful, soaring music for him; I've always viewed Jochanaan as being in something of a permanent trance: wild, staring eyes and torrents of rich sound pouring out of a figure as solid and immovable as a boulder. Uusitalo's physical struggles with the role were a distraction.

Tenor Kim Begley was excellent as the sleazy, manic King Herod; Hungarian mezzo Ildiko Komlosi as his wife Herodias almost upstaged him just by virtue of her resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor, but she sang well, too: her forceful outbursts were as commanding as her easy stage presence.

As the tormented captain Narraboth, tenor Joseph Kaiser looked adorable; the power required to clear Strauss' orchestra eluded him in a couple of spots, but it's evident that he has a pretty voice and knows what he's doing. I'd like to hear him in something else. The Page sang adequately, but did not sound remotely German. In the prize comprimario role of First Nazarene (no, I'm not being snarky, it's really a plum small part) the phenomenal bass (thanks, Met Opera, for not putting his name on the web, sheesh!!!) displayed in spades what Uusitalo's Jochanaan lacked: here was a voice of immense power produced almost effortlessly, with dark bronze rivers of sound welling upward from his golden throat. Despite his ringing, heroic top, he might be too low a bass to comfortably sing Jochanaan, but I hope this is someone the Met is grooming for other roles...King Philip comes to mind. And I might be picky and biased, since clearly I own this part, but David Won as the Cappadocian (I remembered his name from the credits) couldn't possibly have looked less interested in the questions he was asking the First Soldier, mellifluously sung by (name unavailable on the website).

The Met Opera management did alert us via the press that for the broadcast, while Ms. Mattila would indeed go full-monty in the famous Dance of the Seven Veils (or, as Parterre's La Cieca put it, "jam out with her clam out"), the cameras would discretely pan away; as it happened, we got a shot of Herod's delighted leer. I imagine this was, in Janet Jackson's wake, an attempt to avoid the ire of the FCC. Because, you know, it's okay to show a woman's face covered in blood after she's been kissing a decapitated head, but God forbid we see her breasts or, gasp, a little tuft of high-definition fur. This is a century-old opera based on a Bible story, and we still can't handle some of it. Small wonder that it was yanked off the boards of the Met after a single performance in 1907 and banned for twenty-seven years.

On a local technical note, I am wondering if they forgot to turn on some of the speakers at the theater in Beaverton today; I recall being overwhelmed by sound during last season's Macbeth, with the floor literally vibrating. While that may have been a tetch much, today only the speakers directly behind the screen were in operation; the sound was fine, but the experience lacked the visceral thrill -- and part of the point -- of seeing an opera in high-definition in a digital movie theater.


Princess said...

I am fascinated and somewhat envious of everything you experience when attending an opera. All those years of training have given you a gift which is valuable beyond measure. I love reading your reviews.

Straussfan said...

Loved your comments, especially concerning the First Nazarene, whose name, I learned from a dear friend, a retired artist's agent/manager, is Morris Robinson.
Saw the PBS Great Performances showing 1/18/09--my friend had not seen the production but recognized the name immediately from my description!

sexy said...