Salome in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS—A standard production of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” requires a cistern, from which John the Baptist booms out prophecies and imprecations against the title character’s dysfunctional family. Opera Theatre of St. Louis, one of the country’s best summer festivals, doesn’t have a stage that can accommodate a cistern, so on Saturday evening they turned the cistern on its side, and made it a giant vault at the back of the theater. When John appears for the first time, through an oculus that opens to reveal a dark chamber, he is seen in a loin cloth, in Caravaggio-esque shadows, as if framed in a Renaissance tondo.

It’s a powerful entrance, and part of a radical rethinking of the opera that gives the prophet equal dramatic weight with Salome, the spoiled girl who demands and in the end receives his head on a silver platter. “Salome,” which requires a large orchestra and powerful dramatic soprano, is not usually performed by companies the size of Opera Theatre. But Opera Theatre has staged it anyway, scaling it down, and casting the title role with an auburn-haired, pint-sized soprano, Kelly Kaduce, who sings it in almost conversational tones.

Much is lost along the way. The horns and lower strings of the St. Louis Symphony, the pit band for Opera Theatre, are swallowed up in the small orchestra pit, and Strauss’s magnificent and over-sized orchestration becomes a series of interesting, if unsatisfying coloristic effects. The larger momentum of the piece is broken as well, channeled into vignettes and small scenes. The basic reward structure of a Strauss opera—lots of orchestral foreplay that yields, finally, to a long delayed orgiastic release—has lost much of its frustrating pleasure.

But there are many compensations. The suppression of the orchestra allows smaller characters to be heard, and many of the minor players emerged in a way they never do in a fully-scaled opera house performance. Narraboth, the handsome captain of the guards who is dangerously enthralled with Salome, is generally a thankless role, an envoy of the homoeroticism in Oscar Wilde’s original play, which Strauss sets faithfully. Eric Margiore’s Narraboth was a real presence, sung with a fine, forceful tenor and acted with more intelligence than is usually showered on a character whose purpose is only to delay the action. The soldiers under his command—ably sung by Matthew Anchel and Bradley Smoak—were also compelling presences, rather than mere functionaries.

And there’s the peculiarity of this performance. The singers are engaged more with the drama than with the music, which becomes a mere vehicle for the text. There are people who piously insist that this is the proper balance in the opera house, but it is a strange way to approach this early, epater la bourgeoisie opera of Strauss. Strauss chose Wilde’s exercise in decadence (originally written in French) to scandalize, not because the play has any particular psychological depth or even dramatic substance. It was a series of compelling and grotesque tableaux, nothing more.

Strauss’s characters don’t think in words, rather, the orchestra thinks for them. It is the struggle with the orchestra that produces the character’s appearance of psychological depth. Fundamentally, “Salome” is not about Salome, or John the Baptist, or Salome’s horrid parents. It is about a soprano’s battle with a giant noise making machine, ratcheted up to its most perfervid pitch. It is an athletic competition, fought on the gridiron of music, not a drama of words or characters.

Perhaps only a performance that breaks so fundamentally with tradition could reveal this truth, and for that one is grateful to the daring of director Sean Curran, conductor Stephen Lord and dramaturg and consulting director James Robinson.

Kaduce also deserves enormous respect for undertaking a role that she may never sing in a fully-scaled production. With the orchestra kept well tamed, she emerged as the Salome one dreams of: Convincingly adolescent and petulant, lithe and sexy, and a dancer of considerable skill (who finishes the dance of the seven veils completely naked). Her English diction (the libretto was translated by Thomas Hammond) was impeccable, and she managed to stitch together the painfully wide intervals with which Strauss diabolically stresses the musical line. Kaduce’s voice isn’t huge, and she is perhaps still too young to have a clear sense of what its texture and depth will be. But she never wavered or faltered, and she embraced one of opera’s most psychotic roles with true artistic courage.

Her love, and her victim, John the Baptist, was sung by baritone Gregory Dahl, whose voice was the most traditionally matched to the role. He was an uncomfortably believable prophet, vocally authoritative, and at times almost pastoral in his warnings to Salome. He dominated the orchestral texture more than the other singers, which meant he had an unusually large impact on the drama. That, and the slower, more methodically delivered lines of the Jews who debate religion, made the opera seem, at moments, strangely Christian—a genuine meditation on sin and redemption.

That is there, of course, in Wilde’s text. But it’s debatable whether Strauss wanted anyone to find it. Perhaps that’s the best way to sum up an impressive and quixotic effort: Opera Theatre has found in Strauss’s “Salome” things the composer never could have imagined anyone missing.

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