Salome — Philadelphia Orchestra / Opera Philadelphia (8 May 2014)

Salome -- Camilla  Nylund, Alan Held
Sometimes even in opera, it’s the orchestra that earns top billing.

So it was on Thursday night, in a collaborative, semi-staged production of Richard Strauss’s Salome that brought together Opera Philadelphia alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.  It takes nothing away from a fine cast and an intriguing if necessarily limited theatrical presentation to say that it was the glorious playing and conducting that I’ll remember for many years (and I’m sure others will as well).

Of course, Salome is regularly in the repertoire of the Met and the Vienna State Opera, to mention only two companies whose orchestras are first-tier.  But here, it was not only that we had a great orchestra, masterfully conducted by YNS, seemingly a natural-born Straussian.  In using a concert hall (rather than an opera house), with the orchestra front and center on the stage, the audience could hear details in the orchestration with exceptional clarity.

And what a magnificent score it is!  The sound-world of Salome is unusually tricky because it needs to register on two completely different levels.  As a gutsy melodrama, we want it to hit us like a mack truck.  But what makes up that wall of sound is a brilliantly diaphanous series of musical textures that twinkle like tiny lights.  YNS and the orchestra delivered triumphantly on both accounts.

I didn’t envy the singers, who in some ways had to perform the score under the most difficult possible circumstances.  Cutting through Strauss’s dense orchestration isn’t easy even in smaller houses with the orchestra in the pit; here, the cast was placed on a platform stage behind and above the orchestra.  It would be fair to say that sometimes the voices had to struggle – this was especially true for Camilla Nylund’s Salome, whose  silvery lyric tone was generally pleasing (and character-appropriate).  But in the end, she successfully negotiated this difficult role both musically and theatrically.  Alan Held (Jochanaan) had no such issues – it’s a rock-solid bass-baritone of exceptional presence, and (as befits John the Baptist) his every utterance conveyed grandeur and importance.  Fine work, too, from John MacMaster (Herod), Andrew Staples (Narraboth) and several others.

A semi-staged Salome seemed like a bizarre idea to me, but it worked much better than I imagined.  Though the small stage made for restricted movement, it also gave a sense of intimate conversation that’s rarely seen in this opera.  Director Kevin Newbury made good use of his limited space, always finding a visual way to tell the story clearly.  I especially liked the omnipresent ensemble in their black robes and caps – an elegantly spare visual world that evoked the productions of the great director, Wieland Wagner.

One of the moments I doubted most turned out to work splendidly – Salome’s famous dance.  It’s a very hard piece to get right – singers aren’t usually dancers, and Strauss fiendishly makes it tougher because it does on for quite a while – and is followed soon after by Salome’s intensely demanding final scene.  Conceptually, it’s also tricky – the idea is that it inflames Herod’s lust, but if it looks like a mere striptease, the whole thing turns to camp.   Here, Nylund (and choreographer Seán Curren) found a movement vocabulary somewhere between dance and mime that was both sexy and creepy – exactly as it should be.

This Salome gets one more performance (Saturday, May 10th).  It’s an immense amount of work for just two shows, and the rafter-rousing ovation – and two sold-out houses – suggest there’s appetite for more.  Let’s hope this is the first of many such collaborations.



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