Saturday, October 31, 2009

San Francisco Opera's "Salome"

October 24, 2009

As a devotee of plot and character, I cannot entirely forgive Strauss's "Salome" for its cartoon figures. From its mythological origins through Oscar Wilde's play, the story's figures seem to be mere idea-messengers, human shells manipulated toward a greusome ending for purposes that verge on propaganda.

Fortunately, there are other reasons to see it, the primary one being to see if the soprano can actually pull of the multiple demands of the title role: dramatic vocalization, a lengthy dancing/stripping scene, and performing the world's only necrophiliac love aria. In all categories, I'd have to give Nadja Michael an A. Michael gives the massively troubled teen a self-involved intensity, delivers the kinds of searing top-notes that befit the actions and the score, and dances better than any opera singer in the world (and perhaps better than 20 percent of professional dancers). As far as her physical attributes, let's just say that she makes a convincing argument against the fat-Viking-lady stereotype (on the other hand, let's just say "Yowza!").

Sean Curran does a fine job of choreographing the Dance of the Seven Veils, managing to trigger plenty of Salome's sensuality (including an enticing flash of nudity) without inspiring the men in the front row to begin tossing dollar bills. The gore is also handled well: the life-cast of Greer Grimsley's head leaks enough blood to stock a Red Cross bank for a week, and is genuine enough to convey the horror of the scene.

When he actually has his head, Grimsely is fantastic, taking what could be dull biblical condemnations and investing them with power through his thunderous baritone. (His backstage pronouncements were delivered with the help of a megaphone fashioned from the bell of a sousaphone.) Russian mezzo Irina Mishura does well with the double-scorned mother Herodias, but British tenor Kim Begley fails to deliver the real power behind Herod's lechery.

With its use of modern tonalities, and absolutely vicious brass and percussion, its amazing to think that Strauss created this score in 1905. Consider just one of its innovations: Strauss wrote Jokanaan's (John the Baptist's) music around the tonal center of C, and Salome's around C#, thus guaranteeing that every time they met, they would produce nothing but dissonance. This happens most notably at the climax of Salome's final line, a musical event known as the "Salome chord."

Bruno Schwengl's production design follows the current trend toward minimalism, creating a shadowbox of golds and blacks that culminates in Jokanaan's cell, which resembles the aperture of a lens, creating the feeling that we are standing inside of an old-fashioned camera. His costumes are an odd hybrid of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and biblical, although Salome's white dress more resembles the one worn by Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven-Year Itch."

Nicola Luisotti's orchestra was astounding and powerful, although his stage notes promise a preponderance of piano and pianissimo that never comes. Against this artful cacophony - which propels the action forward in a way that almost drives the listener to distraction - the silences before the moment of execution create a rich Hitchcockian suspense.

Through Nov. 1, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Image: Nadja Michael. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," at

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