Auguin brings stripped-down version of 'Salome' to Kennedy Center

EMBRACING 'SALOME': Philippe Auguin, the new music director of the Washington Opera, will focus on the music with his production.
EMBRACING 'SALOME': Philippe Auguin, the new music director of the Washington Opera, will focus on the music with his production. (Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Opera is supposed to be about beautiful music and great emotions, not about scandal and pornography. So when the latter made their way onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in the form of a new work by a hot young composer, it caused such outrage that the opera company withdrew the opera after a single performance.

The date was Jan. 22, 1907, and the opera was Richard Strauss's "Salome."

Today, those who protest "Salome" are more likely to do it on highbrow aesthetic grounds. It was Strauss's third opera, and though by far his best to that point, it's still uneven. Philippe Auguin, the new music director of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra, remembers Herbert von Karajan criticizing one place in the score as "bad music."

The reminiscence makes Auguin, who served as Karajan's conducting assistant for the final three years of the legendary conductor's life, chuckle. "Yes, bad music," he says, echoing Karajan. "But you still have to do something with it."

These days "Salome" has been thoroughly rehabilitated -- even defanged -- and embraced into the canon. Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, the Washington National Opera is opening a production by Francesca Zambello, conducted by Auguin, and starring Deborah Voigt in her belated WNO debut. The crowd is unlikely to protest either the music or Oscar Wilde's play, decadent and necrophiliac though it be. "Salome" is about a willful teenager who develops a fixation on a religious zealot whom her family has imprisoned in a cistern, demands his head on a platter, performs a striptease to get her stepfather to do what she wants, and then kisses the bloody head until the stepfather's soldiers crush her to death with their shields.

It's about "a dysfunctional family at the beginning," Auguin says, "and then this goes into a completely different drama."

The question will be whether the production is defanged as well. "Salome" was a triumph for Voigt and Zambello when they did it together at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 2006. It was Voigt's first time doing the opera in a staged production, and the role became something of a calling card for her; she has already performed it in Washington, in concert performances with Leonard Slatkin and the NSO in 2007.

WNO hoped to repeat the Chicago triumph, but the company couldn't afford to rent the sets and costumes from Chicago. It has created its own, therefore, and what Washington audiences will see is technically a new production, and probably a stripped-down one. It's a sign of the times in a field that increasingly, all over the country, is learning to make a virtue of necessity by plumbing works for inner truth and emphasizing interpersonal relationships over the grand sets and spectacle on which it has traditionally ridden.

Not that focusing on character is a liability -- far from it. A lot of the stereotyping of grand opera has come from the pageant-like productions that have been the norm. At the Met, Robert Lepage's new "Das Rheingold" is being criticized for putting a premium on spectacle over human relationships. Washington audiences had a chance to see the opposite in action, first, in Zambello's compelling "Siegfried" in May 2009, followed by a "Götterdämmerung" that November so strongly sung that the evening became compelling theater without any sets or costumes at all.

Another advantage of the stripped-down approach is that it allows more focus on the music -- which suits Auguin perfectly well. The trick is knowing which parts of the music to focus on. One of the weaker points of "Salome" is also one of the most familiar: the "Dance of the Seven Veils," frequently excerpted in concert, is as frequently dumped on by critics for its cheap, saccharine, film-music presentation. "This music is helpless if you want to kill it," Auguin quips.

But even in this relatively early opera, Strauss had found himself as a musical colorist: It's the range of sounds and timbres of the orchestras that make or break his music, rather than the particular tempo.

This tone-poem quality is what makes him, in Auguin's view, a great opera composer -- his ability to translate the decadence of Wilde's language into musical terms, or to set a scene in a few brief moments, as he does at the very beginning of the opera.

"There is an overture in 'Salome,' " Auguin says, and sings, sonorously, the opening of the score. "You have to bring this complete atmosphere of night, this Biblical Near East summer, within two bars, and then the piece begins."

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