Imagination and Innovation in Stunning Salome

R. Strauss, Salome: Soloists, Portland Opera, George Manahan (conductor), Stephen Lawless (director), Benoit Dugardyn (set), Ingeborg Bernerth (costumes), Mark McCullough (lighting), Matthew Ferraro (choreographer/Assistant Director), Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, 9.11.2013 (BJ)

Narraboth: Ric Furman
Page to Herodias: Melissa Fajardo
First Soldier: Jonathan Kimple
Second Soldier: Konstantin Kvach
Jochanaan: David Pittsinger
A Cappadocian: André Flynn
Salome: Kelly Cae Hogan
Herod Antipas: Alan Woodrow
Herodias: Rosalind Plowright
First Jew: John Kolbet
Second Jew: Ian José Ramirez
Third Jew: Carl Halvorson
Fourth Jew: Marcus Shelton
Fifth Jew: Darren Stokes
First Nazarene: Anton Belov
Second Nazarene: David Warner
Mannassah/Namaan/Issachar/Ozias: Vin Shambry
Dancers: Natasha Kautsky, Dominique Leopold, Megan McCarthy, Julia Ostrovskaia, Colleen
Bevin Smith, Allie Fahsholz

Until seeing this production—stunning in every respect, including the singer of the title role—I had almost forgotten how irresistibly beautiful Salome is.

First priority for the bestowing of specific praise must be accorded to the Salome herself. Kelly Cae Hogan was utterly convincing, painting a terrifying picture of how an apparently unremarkable young princess can be unhinged and plunged into depravity by the onset of a sexual obsession. And she unfolded a voice of thrilling quality, as clear as it was warm, and able to ride seemingly effortlessly over even the most massive orchestral tuttis. The orchestral playing, moreover, under George Manahan’s leadership, was as envelopingly and ravishingly gorgeous as any I can recall hearing in the opera house in a very long time.

One of the most effective touches, in a production whose imaginative innovations never worked against the sense of the opera, was the way Salome repeatedly and tantalizingly postponed lifting the cloche from the silver platter bearing the head of Jochanaan. Another was director Stephen Lawless’s idea of expanding the usual single dancer with seven veils to seven identically veiled dancers—Salome plus one. They swirled rapidly on and off stage in succession, in the process intensifying Herod’s already perfervid fantasies.

In the Tetrarch’s role, Alan Woodrow sang splendidly, and the disgust the character inevitably arouses was nevertheless leavened by a little pity. As the old saying has it, dirty old men need love too. As Herodias, the golden-voiced Rosalind Plowright was the very epitome of icy elegance. One wondered how so outwardly fastidious a character could have got herself mixed up with her husband in the first place. It may well be true that, in the immortal words of Katharine Whitehorn, “outside every thin woman is a fat man trying to get in,” but in any case it must be remembered that we are dealing with a historical milieu in which “choice” was a very much more constricted concept than it is today.

David Pittsinger, whose Almaviva I admired in Lawless’s Portland production of Le nozze di Figaro two years ago, was an equally impressive Jokanaan. Ric Furman carried conviction in the slightly smaller but still important role of Narraboth, and the other parts, including Melissa Fajardo’s justifiably worried Page and a diversely dressed group of Jews, were all strongly taken.

Taken out of historical context, but not too disturbingly transferred into any other specific period, Belgian designer Benoit Dugardyn’s sets and the costumes by the German Ingeborg Bernerth were good to look at and dramatically apt, as was Mark McCullough’s lighting. I was not clear why the stage curtain was drawn partially aside when we entered the theater, revealing half of the set in advance. But at least no distracting stage-business was thrust on us before the work began, and I suppose the device had the effect of ruling out the chance of one of those Philistine bursts of applause when the audience sees an attractive set revealed for the first time.

Altogether, then, this was not merely the best production of Salome I have ever witnessed. It ranks high among the productions I’ve seen of any opera.

Bernard Jacobson

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