Friday Night: Richard Strauss' Salomé at War Memorial Opera House

Categories: Last Night
Richard Strauss' Salomé
War Memorial Opera House
Friday, Oct. 30, 2009


Better than: Sunday school

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Terrence McCarthy
Greer Grimsley (Jokanaan)
Of the six operas that comprise San Francisco Opera's fall 2009 season, Richard Strauss' Salomé is the outlier -- a production that, by design, represents something of a departure from the musical and aesthetic characteristics of the season's other offerings, and challenges the company to explore different artistic terrain. With a libretto drawn from an Oscar Wilde play, which in turn was based on one of the more X-rated tales from the Bible, Salomé was the quintessential succès de scandale when it opened in Dresden in 1905 (its premiere in New York shortly thereafter was effectively quashed by patron protests).  Unfortunately, though, my reaction to Friday night's performance was less marked by visceral ick than by jaded enh.

This production marked the SF Opera debut of German soprano Nadja Michael in the title role, who has also performed in this capacity at Covent Garden, La Scala, and Berlin's Linden Opera.  Though reviews of her vocal performance in S.F. have been lukewarm (Michael is making the difficult transition from mezzo-soprano to soprano), she drew raves for her lithe, sensual physical presence, and -- perhaps most importantly -- for her stellar execution of the Dance of the Seven Veils, the infamous striptease Salomé puts on for her stepfather, King Herod.  On Friday, however, the audibly discomfited audience was informed in a pre-show announcement that Michael "had become indisposed," and was being replaced by American soprano Molly Fillmore, who had flown in from Phoenix, where she was preparing the role with the Arizona Opera.

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Terrence McCarthy
Broc Johnson (Executioner) and Nadja Michael (Salome)
It's difficult to be overly critical of someone performing under such trying circumstances, and while the audience's sympathies were clearly with Fillmore (who was warmly received during her curtain call), it was obvious early on that her Salomé was perhaps not quite ready for prime time. Her voice was (aside from some flat high notes) quite serviceable when it could be heard; unfortunately, most of the time it was all but inaudible, drowned out by the orchestra and the vigorous conducting of Nicola Luisotti. (To be fair, this was an issue with other performers as well, notably British tenor Kim Begley in the role of Herod, which may indicate that the orchestra was simply playing too loudly.)  

And the less said about the Dance of the Seven Veils, the better -- clumsily executed, it had all the erotic import of a mediocre rhythmic gymnastics routine. Even a fleeting moment of toplessness (from behind one of the semitransparent veils) felt half-baked and noncommittal -- the choreography should either go for it, or not bother.  Salomé's subsequent love scene with the severed head of the prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist) had a little more verve to it, but still seemed to drag on. Arguably, Fillmore's Salomé was most effective in the middle of the one-act opera, sitting silently on the stage, looking lost, and fiddling idly with her hair, while her incestuous family cavorted and bickered behind her.

As for the rest of the main cast, Begley's Herod was more of a buffoon than a lech, but Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura as his wife Herodias (and his niece, and Salomé's mother, for genealogists keeping score at home) was a reliably formidable voice and presence. The strongest performance of the evening, though, was bass-baritone Greer Grimsley as Jokanaan. Physically and vocally, he commanded the stage during all of his scenes, and was utterly convincing as a rather deranged prophet of doom. But when the salacious goings-on around him are so anemically rendered by comparison, you can't help but feel that his invocations of Sodom and Gomorrah are a bit of an exaggeration.

By the way: SF Opera's next production is Verdi's Otello.

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