Monday, March 20, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "O Terrible Night" (on Richard Strauss' Salome)

o terrible night
by Douglas Messerli

Oscar Wilde (as translated by Hedwig Lachmann, libretto), Richard Strauss Salome / LAOpera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion / the performance Howard Fox and I saw was the matinee performance on March 19, 2017, the opera’s last performance

The last time I saw a production of Richard Strauss’ wonderful Salome was in October 2008, an HD live showing of the Met production with the fabulous Karita Mattila (see My Year 2002: Love, Death, and Transfiguration). I wrote highly of that production, yet pointing out that Mattila’s “Dance of the Seven Veils,” given her girth, was a bit troublesome, and the final barring of her breasts was cut from the theater-goers vision.
       Now at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and performed by LAOpera, we have an even better production, with the wondrous Patricia Racette displaying a Salome that more thoroughly suggests the young, teenage girl that Salome actually was, a young princess, just beginning to perceive her sexual powers.
       All in this production’s cast members were quite excellent, but one must give particular kudos to Issachah Savage as Narbaboth, Tómas Tómasson, as the cistern- jailed Nochanaan, and Allan Glassman, as Herod. Gabriele Schnaut, when we could hear her voice in the first balcony, seemed equally talented, but that was the problem with much of the other singing; as director James Conlon joked in the preview conversation with the audience, you will be able to hear the singers 90% of the time!
       But what was lost in the singing, was certainly made up for in the acting and in the beautiful abstract set by John Bury (and here being in the balcony was an advantage, since we could quite clearly see the stunningly tiled floor, presumably on the upper roof of Herod’s villa). 
      Racette, performing her notorious dance with four male dancers, was able to make the event a truly spectacular and sexual experience, the leering Herod lounging on pillows while he lusts have his wife’s daughter.

      If the following scene where, after finally getting her way, Salome dances with and kisses the severed head of the prophet, is rather overlong, it nonetheless allowed Racette to once more display the child-like confusions of this now mad girl, who obviously does not quite comprehend death, believing that in her kisses the man who has seen God might open his eyes and finally see her beauty. It is, of course, not Nochanaan with whom she is truly in love, but with the idea of herself and her power over men. In this world where power means everything, she has never learned that there is no real power possible between true lovers. And once she has had her would-be lover killed she is left not only without love but, as in the Tristan and Isolde myth, without life.

      Yet power does win out, in an unexpected way, in this production. Although both Howard and I have long been devoted to Conlon’s astute conducting, we have also, when I look back on my reviews of LAOpera productions, often complained about the lack of richness and sonority of the Opera orchestra. We have always blamed that on the poor acoustics of the hall. But here, with a far larger orchestra that projected further out into the hall, Conlon as his colleagues truly shined, all of Strauss’ glorious music filling the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and shimmering over everything, even in its dense chordal clashes. This time, not only was the popular Conlon applauded, but the entire orchestra was accorded applause in the curtain call again and again. And if, at times, Oscar Wilde’s heavily brocaded words seemed slightly dated, Strauss’ music, even as influenced as it is always by Wagner, seemed miraculously alive and fresh. I do hope there was a recording of this production so that I might enjoy it again and again.
      This year I have chosen the notion of barbarians at the gate to be at the center of my studies; and there is no better example of this than Wilde’s and Strauss’ opera of 1905. Although the people of Herod’s court are terrified of the outside, of the Jewish community living outside its gates and, even more so, of the new Messiah wandering throughout the land—each of the characters at one time or another, declare that they are fearful that something terrible will happen during this very evening—which is why, in part, they have arrested John the Baptist, Jochanaan. We soon learn, however, that the terrible thing that will happen this evening will come from inside, through the hands of all of Herod’s court, and not from outside. Ignorance, sexual obsession, pride, and power all emanate from and gather around these figures to bring their world to an end. Even the crude and lustful Herod, ultimately, cannot abide the world he has helped to create, and orders the beautiful young girl with which he is so enchanted, to be killed, in so doing, not so very differently from Wagner’s Wotan, declaring his own destruction as well.

Los Angeles, March 20, 2017

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