Opera Review

Washington National Opera unveils a lively 'Salome'

'Salome': Doris Soffel's Herodias is a fine foil to Richard Berkeley-Steele's fatuous Herod.
'Salome': Doris Soffel's Herodias is a fine foil to Richard Berkeley-Steele's fatuous Herod. (Scott Suchman For The Washington National Opera)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010

"Salome" is an opera that, like a brilliant and naughty child, deliberately sets out to shock its audience. The Washington National Opera, however, needed not to shock, but to win over. With the news coming out of the company in the past couple of months -- Merger with Kennedy Center discussed! Plácido Domingo decides not to continue as general director! New music director is finally named! -- the company badly needed a strong artistic statement as a reminder that opera is, in fact, what all of this is about.

With "Salome," which opened Thursday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, it has its statement. The soprano Deborah Voigt, making her company debut in the lead role, sang honorably, sometimes radiantly. Philippe Auguin, in his fourth day as WNO's music director, channeled his excitement into music that surged from the pit and sometimes threatened to overpower the singers on stage. And director Francesca Zambello kept a focus on storytelling so that the action was always clear, from the moment when the handsome captain of the guard, Narraboth, kills himself out of frustrated passion for the princess Salome to the moment when the princess, smeared with blood from the decapitated head she has just kissed, is punitively garrotted (rather than crushed by a shield) by another guardsman.

The audience, rather than being shocked, applauded warmly.

There are farcical aspects to "Salome's" relation to its public. This is an opera that sets out to subvert conventional operatic notions of love and redemption. Salome develops a single-minded obsession with Jokanaan (John the Baptist), and, rather than embracing the spiritual redemption he offers her, insists on forcing him into a relationship of the flesh, ultimately having him killed so that he can no longer resist her advances. The richly colored music drips with threat, its swirling chords tinged with bitterness (Auguin lingered lovingly over them).

Yet the main question the opera seems to raise in the minds of its audience, year after year, is whether Salome will take it all off during the Dance of the Seven Veils, the least interesting musical number. The answer, for the record, is that Voigt does get all the way down to at least a body stocking for one blink-and-you'll-miss-it second before other dancers surround her and hide her from view.

Zambello and Voigt collaborated on this opera in 2006 in Chicago. WNO contests the allegation that it couldn't afford to rent the sets from that production; it was, a spokesman said, simply too large for the Kennedy Center stage. In its stead, Peter J. Davison created an undulating, semi-opaque back wall, not entirely unlike a shower curtain, gleaming and rippling with a kind of art deco, 1930s vibe, as if Salome and her family lived in the Emerald City of Oz. This idea was backed up by the Technicolor palette of Anita Yavich's costumes, at least for the palace denizens and slaves; the guards sported beefcake black, and not much of it.

It was a perfectly workable frame for what amounted to a single star turn. Voigt has a lovely voice, and she has worked to make this role her own; though a bit clean-cut as a depraved princess, she channels the freshness of a teenager. Her voice remains somewhat small for the role -- not, as some would have it, because it has gotten smaller since her dramatic weight loss a few years ago, but because it was always a little lighter than a full dramatic voice to begin with.

Her voice still gleamed in places on Thursday, but it took her a while to fully establish her presence. In the final scene, she pumped out a lot of sound; I personally would prefer to hear her pump a little less hard, but it was certainly a worthy performance.

The other singers were also respectable, though Salome's attraction to Jokanaan (Daniel Sumegi) was inexplicable -- he sounded as though he were singing from the bottom of a cistern even when he was onstage with everyone else. (But the drama was built up by the fact that he was clearly tempted by Salome's sexuality, and she by his religion.)

The Narraboth, Sean Panikkar, acquitted himself beautifully, driven half-mad when Salome gets him to violate his commands, and singing well; Richard Berkeley-Steele made an ideally fatuous if half-inaudible Herod; and Doris Soffel was full of rage rather than camp as a stentorian Herodias. Cynthia Hanna was a clarion Page. WNO can be satisfied that it presented something viable, with Auguin adding particular luster; if this wasn't a "Salome" for the ages, it was a very good one for the year.

Salome continues through Oct. 23.

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