The Virginia Opera's production of “Salome.” (LucidFrame/Courtesy of Virginia Opera)

Virginia Opera’s cinematic production of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” was a passionate tour de force that etched love and death in vivid bas-relief Saturday evening at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts.

Setting the German composer’s 1905 opera in today’s war-torn Middle East allowed it to unfold with a sense of modern history echoing writer Oscar Wilde’s fantastical play upon which Strauss based his libretto. Director Stephen Lawless’s juxtaposition of contemporary staging and costumes — a bombed-out ballroom guarded by camouflaged soldiers — with the biblical story of John the Baptist gave the whole production an eerie timelessness that emphasized the human condition.

The challenge in performing “Salome” in a single 105-minute act is not so much the herculean stamina required as it is crafting the music’s complexity so that it breathes. Under conductor Ari Pelto, the orchestra proved a pliant partner for the singers, amping up the opera’s suspenseful moments and dispelling the onstage tension with some powerfully lush sounds.

In the title role, soprano Kelly Cae Hogan sang with unflagging energy and emotion, captivating listeners with her empathetic Salome even during the final tragic aria. Baritone Michael Chioldi’s righteous Jochanaan matched her note for note with warm timbre and phrasing. As Salome’s doting but lascivious stepfather, Herod, tenor Alan Woodrow sang with likable character, and mezzo Katharine Goeldner played wife Herodias with a cool-diva detachment.

The cast was rounded out by 10 impressive men whose portrayals of guards, religious figures and citizens added the requisite backdrop of clashing beliefs; and six women who spun Salome’s fateful veiled dance into a glittery, ghostly affair.

Kelly Cae Hogan as Salome and Alan Woodrow as Herod the Virginia Opera's production of “Salome.” (LucidFrame/Courtesy of Virginia Opera)

Jean is a freelance writer.