Today’s menu of visual entertainment encompasses literally everything thanks to digital technology, but even a complicated work of grand opera from more than a century ago still has the power to shock.
Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera Salome, based on an Oscar Wilde play that was the last word in decadence at the time, also remains a formidable challenge for any house that wants to put it on, requiring as it does Wagnerian-strength voices declaiming over a gigantic orchestra while telling a creepy story of sexual predation and the debasement that accompanies absolute power.
Florida Grand Opera’s production of Salome is the second opera in the Doral-based company’s 77th season, and it’s a strong one, with three fine central performances and a dance and denouement that is lurid but logical and effective.
Starring in the title role of the double-cast opera Saturday night at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami is American soprano Melody Moore, recently seen in roles such as Tosca and Katya Kabanova in Los Angeles and Seattle, respectively. Moore has a large voice with the strength needed to sing Salome, a part that dives into the extreme top and bottom of the range, making it even more taxing. It’s a pretty, well-trained voice, with impressive evenness of compass and musicality.
Moore is a reasonably good actress for the most part, persuasive when she was rejecting all of Herod’s alternative gifts and when she was demanding that the soldiers bring forth Jochanaan. But some of the time she seemed stiff, particularly in the Dance of the Seven Veils, which she did not dance but for which she served as an object to be unveiled (and very briefly, in the altogether) by a group of four dancers who carried out Rosa Mercedes’s sensuous moves.
She was much more animated when Jochanaan’s head was delivered to her, caressing it, shoving it between her legs, and finally lying down beside it like a spoiled child besotted with a new pet. That seems an entirely fitting response for this character, and veteran French stage director Bernard Uzan also withheld her death at the end, bringing in two soldiers to brandish swords, but stop short of using them. Most importantly, Moore had the voice and stamina to soar in the final pages of her Liebestod as the music finally reached its C-sharp-major home.
If Moore was relatively static on stage, tenor John Easterlin’s King Herod was all mania, an autocrat in constant motion who played the part with the crazed volatility of a Galilean Billy DeWolfe, almost veering into buffoonery but stopping just short. And he brought to all that edge-of-madness energy a powerful, cutting tenor that was as commanding as his character was not. It was a riveting performance, quite different from the louche-but-imperial Herod you often seen portrayed in this opera. The audience adored him, and gave him a terrific ovation at the curtain.
Just as memorable was the veteran Mark Delavan as Jochanaan, whose sonorous baritone took on much more presence when he came up from the cistern than it had over an offstage mic. His character’s singing needs to sound majestic and pure, animated as it is by religious zeal, and Delavan did that with excellence, rolling through Strauss’s white-key music for Jochanaan with full, rich tone and laudable smoothness. Another good touch for this staging was Jochanaan’s physical discomfort; Uzan and Delavan wanted to remind the audience that this is a man who has been confined in close quarters, and there’s going to be some pain to go along with that.
Another veteran singer, mezzo Elizabeth Bishop, was a very fine Herodias, an unsympathetic but formidable character for whom Bishop provided penetrating, forceful vocalism. In the smaller roles, all played by members of the FGO Studio, tenor Benjamin Werley showed off a big, radiant voice for Narraboth, while Russian mezzo Mariya Kaganskaya, as the Page, has an instrument of lovely quality that she needs to try and project more effectively; she was difficult to hear.
Baritone Benjamin Dickerson displayed a sturdy voice as the First Soldier, and soprano Evan Kardon offered an attractive, silvery sound in her one line as the Slave. Tenor Edgar Miguel Abreu was quite effective as the First Jew, as was bass-baritone Rafael Porto as the First Nazarene.
There were 75 orchestra players in the pit for this Salome, and they played wonderfully well in a score that in typical Strauss fashion treats each section as a virtuoso element. They were led with great skill by Timothy Myers, until recently music director of the North Carolina Opera, who paced this opera beautifully, building it carefully to its dramatic and structural climax.
As a stage director, Uzan seems partial to explorations of individual motive and tends to keep the focus clearly on the central players. In this production, he does this by clearing out any background characters, so that things take place in a sort of arid space; Salome’s climactic dance, for example, is done in front of Herod and Herodias alone. Without a horrified court and soldiers looking on, this scene loses its connection to the disease of Herod’s palace and makes it appear that it is taking place in a clinical environment, as if the tetrarch and his wife were physicians at a mental hospital observing a disturbed patient through the safety and remove of protective glass.
The Pittsburgh Opera set by Boyd Ostroff is elegant, spare and stays out of the singers’ way, and lighting designer Kevin Mynatt assigns colors (red for Herod, white for Jochanaan) like leitmotifs, which adds a feeling of strangeness and ferment that is entirely appropriate.
Salome continues Friday and Saturday at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami, and then moves to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale for two more performances Feb. 8 and 10. Melody Moore sings Salome on Feb. 3 and 8; Kirsten Chambers takes the role Feb. 2 and 10. Call 800-741-1010 or visit www.fgo.org.