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Review: Pittsburgh Opera's 'Salome' powerful, strikes proper balance

| Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, 2:03 p.m.
David Bachman Photography
Salome (Patricia Racette) insists that her stepfather King Herod (Robert Brubaker) live up to his promise, while her mother Herodias (Michaela Martens) looks on approvingly in Pittsburgh Opera's 'Salome.'

The many talents and decisions of Pittsburgh Opera's distinctive production of “Salome” by Richard Strauss created a memorably powerful experience on Nov. 5 at the Benedum Center. It was the first in a run of four performances.

Soprano Patricia Racette gave a thrilling portrayal of Princess Salome, embracing in her own way the most outrageous aspects of the role, and was supported by a strong cast. The most striking aspect of Antony Walker's conducting was his balances between voices and orchestra, which let every word be heard.

When Strauss saw Oscar Wilde's biblical play “Salome” he saw and seized on the opportunity it presented for a truly shocking opera. It was first performed in 1905 in Dresden, Germany, and so offended contemporary sensibilities there and elsewhere that it was usually banned after a single performance.

Salome is a teen princess in Judea, ruled by her father-in-law Herod and his wife, Herodias. Strauss's music brilliantly captures the obsessive and lustful air of the Herod's court, as well as the goodness of Jochanaan, John the Baptist, who is being held captive by Herod. After Salome becomes obsessed with Jochanaan and he rejects her, she dances a strip tease called the Dance of the Seven Veils to force Herod, who lusts after her, to give her whatever she wants. She demands Jochanaan's head, and after she gets it she kisses it on the lips. Herod orders his soldiers to kill her.

Racette created a brilliantly textured picture of Salome, both privileged by rank and oppressed by the world she lives in. Her curiosity with Jochanaan grows by steps to fascination and obsession.

The soprano sang with ample power, and would no doubt have been able to ride over a louder orchestra. She encompassed the part's wide range, including the demanding lowest register, and also had the nuance to vocally color insinuation, charm and ecstasy.

Her Dance of the Seven Veils, created with choreographer Michele de la Reza of Attack Theatre, went against type because it mostly wasn't directed at Herod, for whom it was supposedly being performed. Most of this Salome's Dance was about her feelings, and was accompanied by three male dancers. At the end Racette turned fully naked to Herod, and then turned her back on him to face the audience before covering up.

But it was the final scene that was Racette's greatest success. When Jochanaan's head is brought up on a silver platter from the cistern in which he had been held and beheaded, she grabs it with glee. She plays with the head like a toy, until she kisses it and grosses out even Herod and his court.

Baritone Nmon Ford was outstanding as Jochanaan. His opening lines were surprisingly powerful, sung as they were from under the stage in the cistern. But he sang with resonant dignity throughout. He was also much less stiff physically than most Jochanaans.

Robert Brubaker as Herod and Micaela Martens as Herodias both sang well and roused themselves to requisite nastiness at times, but neither created a particularly vivid presence.

Jonathan Boyd was superb as Narraboth, the captain of the guard who's obsessed with Salome and kills himself when he sees she's only interested in Jochanaan. Leah de Gruyl as queen's page and Andy Berry as the Cappadocian were both very effective, as were the soldiers, Jews and Nazarenes.

The production was mostly traditional except that the soldiers carried knives rather than swords and shields. In this production Salome is killed by knife stabbing although the music's final rhythms suggest an even more brutal death.

Walker's balance oriented conducting did not obscure his affection for the score. But while he brought out defining leitmotifs well, much of Strauss's score sounded undernourished. Admittedly, Strauss wrote so much detail in the score that much goes unheard for the audience even when performed in his full orchestration and Pittsburgh Opera used a reduced orchestration. There were effective contributions to be heard at the performance on Nov. 5 – some woodwind solos, wonderful horns, excellent timpani, and from time to time the strings. Even so, there should have been more room for the sweep of Strauss's music to soar.

“Salome” lasts about 100 minutes and has no intermission. Pittsburgh Opera's current production is one of its best.

Pittsburgh Opera's production of “Salome” will be repeated at 7 p.m. Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11 and 2 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $10.75 to $159.75. Details: 412-456-6666 or pittsburghopera.org/tickets.

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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