Saturday, February 7, 2015

Review: 'Salome'

Virginia Opera
Ari Pelto conducting
Feb. 6, Richmond Center Stage

Regieoper – “director’s opera” – strikes again in Virginia Opera’s current production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” although on this occasion more with a tack hammer than a bludgeon.

Stage director Stephen Lawless moves this story from the lifetime of Jesus to a bomb-scarred Middle Eastern palace in the present or recent past. The director’s premise, as stated in his program note, is that “the events in this piece could only happen in a world where people have nothing left to lose,” and that “the chaos and destruction of current events match the milieu of [Oscar] Wilde’s original [play] and Strauss’ opera.”

Whether the inhabitants of Palestine in the reigns of the Roman Emperor Augustus and his local vassal, the Tetrarch Herod, had nothing left to lose is a question we’d best leave to theologians. Lawless’ change of time frame creates some incongruities, notably in the costumes of the Jews and Nazarenes attending a banquet at Herod’s court.

As to the milieu of Wilde and Strauss, that would be Western Europe in the Belle Epoque of the late-19th and early 20th centuries, when the people who could afford to attend Wilde’s play, and, later, Strauss’ opera, had a great deal to lose, and were reminded of it regularly by terrorist bombings and assassinations, revolutionary polemics and brushfire wars that threatened to metastacize into great-power confrontations – all very resonant in our time, although I doubt many would consider our epoque quite as belle as the pre-World War I years.

Wilde, Strauss and other creative figures of the time were upsetters of the established order, challenging the manners and mores of polite society. “Salome” was one of the era’s most noteworthy artistic scandals. In its early years, the opera was banned in Vienna, partially censored in London, and withdrawn after one performance in New York.

Its eroticism, by today’s standards, barely rates a PG. In many recent stagings, Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” has concluded with the singer or (more commonly) dancer nude or in a flesh-toned body suit. Virginia Opera stays in G-rated territory: The dance is performed by Salome and six dancers in matching costumes, with few veils shed and no one left unclothed.

The Salome of this production, Kelly Cae Hogan, boasts a potent dramatic soprano voice and the ability to sustain it at high intensity for long stretches of music, as this role requires. Her characterization, however, is joltingly schizophrenic.

In the early going, her Salome is a bratty teenager retaining some little-princess pre-teen mannerisms. Once Salome becomes smitten by Jochanaan (John the Baptist), held captive by Herod, she becomes rather coarsely vixenish and, after he scornfully rejects her, quite vividly unhinged. Hogan is at her best, both vocally and dramatically, in making a true mad scene of Salome’s soliloquy with the severed head of Jochanaan (the price she exacts from an unwilling Herod before she will dance for him).

Michael Chioldi is a stoic Jochanaan with stentorian tones perfectly suited to the character’s sternly judgmental pronouncements and ominous prophecies.

Alan Woodrow, as Herod, and Samuel Levine, as Narraboth, the guards’ captain who is dangerously infatuated with Salome, essay their psychological traumas more consistently, at fever-pitch, with vocalizations to match. Katharine Goeldner, as Herodias, Herod’s consort and Salome’s mother, doesn’t convey the fierceness her role calls for – she comes across as appropriately jaded but curiously detached, even bored.

The supporting singers and dancers make fine contributions – Llangston Radford’s especially so as the stoic butler – and conductor Ari Pelto draws a richly sonorous, at times spookily characterful performance from the orchestra, drawn from the Virginia Symphony.

Further performances of Virginia Opera’s “Salome” will be staged at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 8 in the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets, and at 8 p.m. Feb. 124 and 2 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Center for the Arts of George Mason University in Fairfax. Richmond tickets: $15.25-$105.93; (800) 514-3849 (ETIX). Fairfax tickets: $44-$98; (888) 945-2468 ( Details: