Voigt Delivers In the NSO's Stellar 'Salome'

Conductor Leonard Slatkin was at his best at the Kennedy Center working with the NSO  --  particularly the brass section  --  and soprano Deborah Voigt, right in Richard Strauss's
Conductor Leonard Slatkin was at his best at the Kennedy Center working with the NSO -- particularly the brass section -- and soprano Deborah Voigt, right in Richard Strauss's "Salome." (2006 Photo By Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007

The musicologist Joseph Kerman famously derided Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca" as a "shabby little shocker." The phrase applies even more acutely to Richard Strauss's "Salome," a one-act opera that so horrified early 20th-century audiences that it was banned in several cities. Even today, this gathering of some of the most unpleasant people ever cast forth upon a stage -- whether the wild-eyed zealot Jokanaan or the murderous nymphet Salome -- evokes a palpable revulsion, like a stranger's nicotine-stained finger in the back of your throat.

Still, almost from the beginning, "Salome" has been a much-coveted showpiece for a heroic soprano and, last night, Deborah Voigt proved herself the latest in a line of superwomen, dating back to the legendary Mary Garden, who have made the role their own. Leonard Slatkin conducted the National Symphony Orchestra and a large cast in a concert performance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and, even if the NSO's programming were not so stultifyingly timid as it has been through much of the 2006-2007 season, this would surely have counted as one of the orchestra's most exciting offerings of the year.

Much of the credit must go to Slatkin, who was at his very best -- solidly in control of his massed forces, both passionate and proportionate in his leadership. The NSO sounded like the gleaming virtuoso collective it is, with the brass, in particular, booming magnificently. Indeed, there were moments when the playing was a little too loud -- drowning out Voigt is not easy, but it can be done and the NSO proved it in the final moments of the opera. But such imbalances were rare.

What impressed me most about Voigt was the nuance and freshness her voice retained even after singing at or near the top of her lungs for well over an hour. She never sounded steely: It was always recognizably a fellow human being, rather than a singing machine, making those lush and opulent sounds.

The cast was strong throughout. Alan Held declaimed the role of Jokanaan with a dark power and demented majesty that would have done Rasputin proud. Donald Litaker as Herodes and Jane Henschel as Herodias came across as monstrous precursors to those bickering elderly television couples you used to hate in '70s sitcoms, yet such was the fierce intensity of their singing that the characters took on individual and tragic dimensions. Especially fine was the young tenor Jason Collins, who sang the role of Narraboth with a high, free sweetness.

The opera is what it is -- alternately tawdry and inspired, and not to be compared with the out-of-the-ballpark masterpiece that Strauss would create next, his setting of "Elektra." The "Dance of the Seven Veils," in particular, is only a step or two above the hoochie-coochie Orientalism upchucked by Saint-Saens in the "Bacchanale" from "Samson et Dalila." Yet the combination of Slatkin's authority, the playing of the NSO and the splendid singing by Voigt and her colleagues made this an evening to remember.

There will be two more performances -- tomorrow at 1:30 and Monday night at 8. Somewhat surprisingly, tickets are still on sale: You may want to change that situation.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company