18 November 2006: Strauss, Salome

Chicago Lyric Opera. Opera in one act in German, libretto from the play in French by Oscar Wilde, translated into German by Hedwig Lachmann. Conductor, Sir Andrew Davis. Stage director, Francesca Zambello. Deborah Voigt as Salome, Kim Begley as Herod, Judith Forst as Herodias, Alan Held as Jochanaan. Setting by George Tsypin. Costumes by Tatiana Noginova.

Musically speaking, this production was stunningly good. Deborah Voigt has a marvelously powerful yet unfailingly musical voice, and she is unafraid to let her tone and timbre turn “ugly” where the dramatic needs of the opera make it appropriate. Add to that a commanding presence, and — except, of course, for the impossibility of realizing the original, sylph-like adolescent of Wilde’s play — you have a perfect Salome. The other voices, if not so spectacular, were still very fine and appropriate to character.

The setting and staging were another matter. The set was a spare and quite negotiable semi-abstraction, but too abstract to appear to have any connection with anything more than a few broken columns vaguely suggestive of ancient architecture. The simple set piece was a huge semitransparent . . . Thing; I can’t be any more precise. What was it? A stylized amphora? Who knows? Anyway, within the larger thing was a smaller thing that turned out to be an elevator; this was the cistern, in which Herod has imprisoned Jochanaan, and Jochanaan’s powerful voice could be heard emanating from below it. When he was brought on stage, he came up on the elevated trapdoor and then came through the back­side of the larger . . . thing onto the stage. This whole apparatus was covered with scrim, and so could be rendered opaque or transparent through the selective directional use of light. It was technically very sophisticated and works well, from the standpoint of staging, but except for its centrality — exactly at center stage — it added nothing very meaningful to the drama and the meaning of the work.

The other notable feature of the set was a catwalk about twenty feet high that curved in a circular fashion completely around the upper stage. There was no visible means of ascent or descent; obviously, there were steps or ladders back­stage. Again, while visually interesting, it seemed to serve no particular dramatic purpose. Wilde’s original stage plan calls for the space to be an open area with a balcony upstage, outside Herod’s banqueting hall; on one side of the stage is a gigantic staircase, which remains completely unused until the very end, when Herod ascends it half-way and then, turning toward the kneeling figure of Salome at the center of the stage, he calls out to his soldiers “Kill that woman!” In this production Herod is up high at the downstage left extremity of the catwalk when he utters his command. Putting him there almost nullifies the dramatic climax that Wilde (and presumably Strauss) had in mind. Francesca Zambello has to take Herod and Herodias offstage at stage level, perhaps persuading us that he has gone fearfully into the palace, as he tells Herodias they will. Then he has to climb the offstage means of ascent and come back on stage to see what Salome is doing — kissing the lips of the dead Jochanaan’s head — and then condemn her to death. This substitutes a cheap kind of surprise for what in Wilde’s original script is a much more ominous inevitability.

And then, continuing her blithe ignoring of the script, Zambello’s response to Wilde’s climax, in which the soldiers “crush beneath their shields Salome, Prin­cess of Judea,” she has the executioner Naaman enter with a length of rope and strangle Salome quickly to death. Granted that Strauss, in composing his opera, found it necessary, or at least advantageous, to cut a large percentage of Lach­mann’s German translation (made from Lord Alfred Douglas’s translation of the French original into English), for both musical and, I think, dramatic reasons, one thing he didn’t cut was the earlier reference by Jochanaan to a death by crush­ing, under the soldiers’ shields. Zambello simply didn’t notice this reference or didn’t care about it. There are no soldiers on stage at this point, anyway.

In fact, Zam­bello makes this production far more of a chamber opera than it promises to be in Wilde’s conception of his subject. In Wilde’s script we see assembled a wide range of persons, such as might be drawn to the court of as powerful a ruler as Herod. Many if not most of them stay on stage for much of the time — after all, this is a feast, a party thrown by the most powerful person around, someone who thrives on the adulation they bestow on him. There is none of this in Zambello’s version of the play; if you’re not actually singing some­thing, off you go. One thought I had, as I saw all those glittering, resplendent, wonderfully exotic costumes exiting so prematurely, was, “What a waste of all those expensive costumes!”

Zambello obviously had different ideas, and she collaborated with George Tsypin the set designer to present a spare, semi-abstract, almost minimalist rend­er­ing of Wilde’s play as transformed by Strauss’s music. Well, I can see that the idea might have been to pare things down to the minimum in order to make plenty of room for the large, luxuriant music by this brilliant composer whose very chord progressions speak — sing — volumes about the conflictual, oppos­itional elements in the very web of the drama itself. The opera can be thought of musically as a one-and-three-quarter-hours-long dance of the seven veils, as one “veil” constantly evokes wonder and beauty and then gives way instantaneously to something contrasting and different. But I’m not asking for Cecil B. DeMille to address this opera and bring a cast of thousands, or even just scores, onto the stage. There are ways of suggesting abundance without cluttering up the stage. I don’t think it would have gotten in the way of Strauss’s luxuriant music at all to have given us Herod’s fulsome court on a festive evening.

But Zambelli, it seems, was more interested in putting her Überdirektor’s mark on this opera than in exploring and drawing out the meanings and values implicit — and explicit, too, for that matter — in the libretto and the music itself. Strauss’s opera is an eminently playable, and memorable, piece, all the more intensely one thing for its relative brevity (no one would wish it any longer, or shorter); but this production would have been all the more memorable if the sets and staging had been made to serve the drama instead of serving the egos of the creative artists involved. I’m not looking for realism or naturalism, and I under­stand what visionary designers like Adolf Appia had in mind when they jettis­oned the “you are there” full realism of nineteenth-century staging in favor of a more abstract, non-specific environment. But Appia knew how to serve the intrin­sic needs of Wagnerian and other opera, providing a transparent intro­spective view into the very heart and lungs of its artistic life. What we had on the stage of Chicago Lyric Opera Saturday night was a regrettable imposition that distracted us and detracted from the real vitality and genuine horror of Strauss’s music and Wilde’s subject. This is a play about the willful, perverse desire to cut off the head of a holy man because he refused himself to a young woman who wanted his body, his gaze upon her, and his love for her — and about the horren­dous consequences of such perverse desire. It is the perennial Wildean theme: the ineluctable corruption of an innocent by a venal and corrupt world. There seems to be every realization of this thematic material in Strauss’s opera, but the staging not only added nothing to that but actually took a good bit away from it.

The more I think about this, the angrier I get. So I’ll stop now, before I start inveighing at greater length against Zambello’s staging of the closing moments of the dance of the seven veils, in which Salome, down to her last veil, is doing a stripper’s pole dance inside the “thing,” before she whips off the white veil to reveal her body stocking and the lights go out.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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