The Washington Concert Opera performance of Massenet’s “Herodiade” on Sunday evening was electric from beginning to end. It is a well-made opera, by a master of well-made operas, and its tenuous place in the repertory is baffling. But so too the tenuous place of Massenet’s “Le Cid,” “La Navarraise” and “Esclarmonde,” and it would take a legion of concert opera companies working long seasons to do justice to all the Massenet treasures that have fallen by the way side. “Herodiade” recounts the Salome story with a particular focus on her mother, though our sympathies lie squarely with the young maiden and her beloved, John the Baptist. The gauzy symbolism of Oscar Wilde’s play, which inspired Richard Strauss’s “Salome,” makes that opera seem like the more psychologically sophisticated drama. But Massenet and his librettists (Paul Milliet and Henri Gremont) find subtleties of character and motivation entirely absent in the Strauss score. Both dramas indulge a powerful sense of eroticism, but one is fragrant, the other noisome; Massenet’s characters are believably but not pathologically perverse; and the French version (composed almost a quarter century before Strauss’s score) offers us a back story that gives us at least a shred of sympathy for Herode and his wife.
The string sound of the Concert Opera orchestra could be warmer and more cohesive, and the brass isn’t uniformly reliable. But those are the only two quibbles once could raise about this magnificent performance, starring soprano Joyce El-Khoury and tenor Michael Fabiano. As Salome, El-Khoury’s strength was in the tender linking phrases, the ends of the line, the connective material, the myriad changes of emotion and dynamics. The voice isn’t silvery in the way one might expect from a lyric soprano singing Massenet, but it is beautifully produced, pure and more than adequately sized during even the largest of the ensembles. Fabiano’s tenor is effortless and bright, and it cuts through the orchestral texture beautifully. In the finale of the third act it seemed perhaps he was being cautious; but then, after a five-minute pause, he came out to sing a thrilling “Adieu donc, vains objets,” passionately limning the tension between earthly love and sacred duty.
Mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller took the title role, and appropriately, the last of the curtain calls. She was a late replacement in the role, but was entirely confident, projecting a chilling sense of menace, ambition and vengefulness through the evening. The voice is in fact two voices, a forceful chest register with a powerful attack, and a more lyrical top. Miller’s approach was athletic, and commanding, and one sometimes wished for more of a sense of line. But she was a memorable, white-hot mess of a Herodiade, contributing far more than her share to the dramatic arc of the piece.
Ricardo Rivera sang the baritone role of Herode, with unflagging energy and vocal support. This isn’t the slobbering lech of Oscar Wilde’s play, but a determined politician with a reckless streak, unmanned by unrequited desire. Bass Wei Wu, a member of the Washington Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, sang the role of Phanuel with astonishing consistency and beauty of tone. Among the pleasures of this opera, which recalls the grand proportions and huge crowd scenes of an earlier generation of French grand opera, are the many opportunities for all of the characters to shine, interact and goad each other on. And one of the pleasures of this performance was a cast with no weak links, led by a conductor, Antony Walker, who subordinated none of these encounters to indifferent or listless interpretation.
Photo: Soprano Joyce El-Khoury and tenor Michael Fabiano, by Don Lassell, courtesy Washington Concert Opera.