Salome at Lyric Opera

Salome at Lyric Opera, 2006

Art gauged at shocking the bourgeoisie wasn’t invented in the 1960’s. Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play, Salomé with its themes of sexual obsession, nymphomania, suicide, incest, paedophilia, pornography, and murder might have been expected to do the trick.

Interestingly, those weren’t the reactions of the French or, later, English audiences when the play premiered. The play was initially banned in the United Kingdom because of the biblical themes.

Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera, Salome is nearly a word-for-word re-staging of Wilde’s play as an opera and amplifies Wilde’s disturbing themes with Strauss’s remarkable facility for creating images with music.

Our Salome last night was soprano Deborah Voigt. Ms. Voigt caused something of a stir in the opera world a couple of years ago. After being discharged from a role because of her weight, she decided to undergo gastric bypass surgery. Anything which disturbs the abdominal muscles is considered particularly risky for an opera singer.

There’s about half as much of Ms. Voigt now as there was when we saw her last at Lyric Opera but it does not seem to have had adverse effects on her voice. The promotional image of Ms. Voigt in the role is on the left. She sang the grueling part with strong, clear, youthful tones.  And danced it, too, I might add which is more than the soprano who created the role did.
As with our last opera of this season, Iphigénie, I thought that all of perfomances were excellent vocally. Alan Held as Jochanaan (John the Baptist) had a strong, commanding voice (although not as strong as some Jochanaan’s we’ve seen—our last Jochanaan at Lyric was Bryn Terfel). I thought his acting was really exemplary.

The production takes place on a single, rather abstract set. Sets and costuming were effective. The lighting was a standout.

I think it’s arguable that Richard Strauss’s works like Salome and Elektra are 20th century realizations of opera seria. Like 18th century opera seria the action of the opera takes place in a pre-Christian world of gods and heroes. But opera seria of the 18th century was composed in a Christian world while the composition of Salome was in a post-Christian one and I think that renders the opera peculiarly emotionless and cerebral

There are no moral actions here: all of the characters act out their compulsions. No choices are made so there is neither heroism nor tragedy. The characters act as they must.

There have been many attempts at identifying a moral to this work. I’ve seen allegorical interpretations, Freudian interpretations, even a feminist interpretation. There is no moral. The characters move, act, and die.

I’d be hard put to put a comparative rating on Salome and Iphigénie. They’re tied. If I had to choose I’d give Salome a slight edge based on the strong production.

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