Staged or Not, Volcanic Salome Impresses

United StatesUnited States R. Strauss, Salome: Soloists, C-CM Philharmonia, Mark Gibson (conductor). College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH. 29.1.2016. (RDA)

R. Strauss: Salome

Principals: Amy Johnson (Salome), Kenneth Shaw (Jochanaan), Allan Glassman (Herod), Elizabeth Bishop (Herodias), with Brandon Russell, Chelsea Melamed, TJ Capobianco, John Humphrey, Blake Lampton, Pedro Arroyo, Christian Pursell, John Murton, Alex Harper, Jacob Kinkaide, Nicole Hodgins and Scarlett Rustemeyer

Salome only occasionally rises up to the level of some of the best of Richard Strauss, a composer whose self-assessment was the famous: “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.”  Great operatic libretti encapsulate the story with economy, allowing the music to complete the telling. In Salome the composer takes roughly ninety minutes to tell a tale that could easily be wrapped up and dispatched in half that time. In this performance at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, the long-windedness of the libretto could have been alleviated by the use of supertitles, which unfortunately were nowhere in sight. In addition, the performance was advertised as a semi-staged one, but in fairness I can only review what I saw as a concert performance, as almost none of the key dramatic moments were fully realized on stage.

In this version of the story, the spoiled princess of the title becomes fixated on Jochanaan (John the Baptist), an imprisoned “holy man” whose body, hair, and mouth entice the oversexed young woman beyond her self-control. When she is denied three times and Jochanaan will not give in to her advances, she decides on her course of action. In exchange for King Herod’s promise of anything she could possibly want, she regales him with a provocative dance clad in seven veils that she gradually removes one-by-one, before she ultimately ends up at the feet of her lusting stepfather. Then, against all of Herod’s pleas, she asks for payment: the head of John the Baptist. The execution is carried out, the bleeding head of the holy man is brought before her, and Salome all but makes love to the gory trophy as everyone watches, aghast. Horrified by her deviant behavior, Herod orders her crushed by the shields of his bodyguards. That is what one would see in a fully staged version of the opera.

Written for a unique soprano, the title role’s range is unreasonably wide, reaching up to B at the top of the staff and down to G-flat below it. The part is punishing, with extended passages that linger in the upper octave, while asking the singer to be heard through a massive orchestration. Amy Johnson took on this volcanic assignment brilliantly, conquering its perils with an impressive command of the role’s vocal and dramatic complexities.

The part of Jochanaan also calls for a formidable singer. The character spends most of his stage time kept in the depths of a cistern, while hectoring the infidels above ground about the evils of their decadent world, and the impending arrival of the Messiah. In the hands of a lesser artist this could soon grow tiresome, but as brought to life by bass-baritone Kenneth Shaw, the doomed prophet was sung with stentorian authority and portrayed with this artist’s usual attention to the subtleties of text.

Tenor Allan Glassman, a lecherous Herod, made his presence strongly felt both with his clarion voice, and when silently watching the object of his carnal desires. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop was an imposing Herodias, both vocally and dramatically. Brandon Russell brought lyricism and pathos to the role of the tragic Narraboth.  A fine ensemble of students undertook the roles of soldiers, Jews, and pages. Performing the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” Scarlett Rustemeyer showed graceful sensuality in Andre Megerdichian’s choreography.

My one caveat is that the sizeable orchestra (over 100 strong) at times all but obliterated the singers on stage. But overall, conductor Mark Gibson led the cast and the impressive C-CM Philharmonia with passion and a consummate command of the mammoth score.

Rafael de Acha

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