Salome at the Washington National Opera

A few quick thoughts on the Washington National Opera’s production of Salome, which I saw Friday evening. Deborah Voigt works very hard in the title role, and you sense the work every step of the way. In the first two thirds of this one-act opera, you admire the energy she is putting into her facsimile of a hormonally saturated teenage brat. And in the last third, as the music soars and Salome descends into erotic mania, you admire Voigt’s effort to get the notes out clearly and cleanly through the wall of orchestral sound.

But you can never quite relax and accept Voigt in the role. Her dutiful approach is an A-for-effort performance, but not in the end convincing or satisfying. Are there any sopranos, today, truly satisfying in the role? But contemplating that rhetorical question doesn’t make one enjoy Voigt’s work any more.

The best things about this production are Francesca Zambello’s direction, which has moments of great insight;  conductor Philippe Auguin’s musical leadership, which is rich in detail, carefully modulated in relation to the singers, and idiomatically paced and phrased; and finally, the male roles,  first the Narraboth of Sean Panikkar, then the Jokanaan of Daniel Sumegi and in the end, despite the small size of the voice, the lyrical approach of Richard Berkeley-Steele as Herod.

Panikkar’s opening line, a plangent statement of Salome’s beauty that might also be a question–How beautiful is the Princess Salome, tonight  (!?)-was nicely supported and sung with a beautiful, clarinet-like warmth. Sumegi’s Jokanaan sounded strained and pinched in the cistern but that was misleading. The voice opened up beautifully when he emerged to utter his cryptic execrations. And Berkeley-Steele was an odd choice for a role usually reserved for  a superannuated singer with leather lungs. But he made Herod a convincing sensualist, and captured the king’s superstition.

Zambello’s direction didn’t magically transform anyone into an actor, alas. These are opera singers, after all. But she created a couple of tableaux that were memorable and exceeded the usual thought content of opera direction. Before descending back to the gloom of his subterranean prison, Jokanaan cradled the young Salome, ministered to her, showed a bit of Christian kindness. This makes Salome’s sexual obsession all the more terrifying when she persists in it, oblivious to his pastoral care. And finally, near the end, with Jokanaan’s head on a platter and Salome triumphant, the young princess pulls up a chair, and contemplates the head from a distance, as if admiring her work. She’s a murderous little hussy, of course, but you can suddenly feel the claustrophobia and sadness of her life. All she can accomplish is destruction. This is her masterwork, her sad, bloody little opus, and it’s all she has. Growing up in a vicious household has left her few options for anything beyond desire and cruelty.

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