Santa Fe Opera’s ‘Salome’: Shock and awe

Royal daughter Salome goes psycho, as Santa Fe Opera production of Richard Strauss' shock opera brilliantly revives the 1905 original's creepy atmospherics.

Alex Penda (Salome) in a close encounter with the head of John the Baptist. (Credit: Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

SANTA FE, N.M., Aug. 5, 2015 – For a 21st century audience, Santa Fe Opera’s smashing new production of Richard Strauss’ shock opera “Salome” in many ways brilliantly revives the creepy atmospherics of the 1905 original production that scandalized the early 20th century opera world. It’s the 2015 operatic equivalent of “shock and awe,” made all the more chilling and effective by a great cast and a fantastic performance by the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) Orchestra.

Strauss’ breakthrough 1905 opera was built on Oscar Wilde’s then relatively unknown French-language verse-drama, “Salome.” That Beardsley-esque play, in turn, was the late and then greatly disgraced Wilde’s weirdly lush, poetic take on the legendarily fatal encounter between the wanton pagan princess, Salome, and the doomed prophet, John the Baptist.

A catatonic Salome (Alex Penda) stonewalls Herod's (Robert Brubaker's) plea to spare John the Baptist, aka Jochanaan, from a grisly death. (Credit: Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.
A catatonic Salome (Alex Penda) stonewalls Herod’s (Robert Brubaker’s) plea to spare John the Baptist, aka Jochanaan, from a grisly death. (Credit: Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Strauss must have recognized the value of Wilde’s French text as a virtual libretto. Using a German translation of that text and trimming it for operatic use, his resulting one-act opera took only a bit over 90 minutes to perform.

“Salome’s” compactness, dramatic intensity and lurid subject matter fascinated and repelled audiences, a reaction due as much to Strauss’ distinctively chromatic and modernist score as it was to the opera’s final scene.

In that memorable tableaux, Salome embraces and serenades the bloody head of the decapitated Baptist — her prize for performing the opera’s well-known Dance of the Seven Veils for her depraved stepfather, King Herod. So much for those who believe operas are boring and dull.

The traditional story of Salome appears to be a conflation of material from the Gospel of Mark and material from the works of the Jewish historian, Josephus. Mark describes how a daughter of Queen Herodias — whose second marriage was to King (or Tetrarch) Herod — danced for the king on behalf of her mother, who wanted the imprisoned John the Baptist executed for denouncing her sinfulness.

Josephus provides historical material on Salome, described as a daughter of Herodias. At some point, the stories became one in oral tradition. Whether historically true by contemporary standards or not, this tale lives on as a cautionary morality play contrasting the virtue of religion with the depravity of pagan amorality and debauchery, something that certainly must have inspired Wilde to pen his verse play at the beginning of the most chaotic period of his short, tragic life.

In Strauss’ operatic version of the play, we are first introduced to the decadence of King Herod’s palace and become acquainted as well with his willful teenage daughter, Salome. Both she and her mother are not getting along with Herod, a situation made worse by Herod’s leering desire for Salome.

Salome, however, becomes madly attracted to the imprisoned John the Baptist, called Jochanaan in both the play and the opera. Jochanaan is depicted as a wild-eyed religious fanatic whose fanaticism, however, soon proves far purer and nobler than the moral atmosphere of Herod’s palace. Unsurprisingly, Salome decides she’s in love with him, but he rebuffs her advances, leading to the story’s well-known sordid and tragic conclusion.

Modern critics are prone to cite “Salome” as Strauss’ “coming out” party, celebrating his gradual embrace of Nietzschean godlessness over traditional religious beliefs and ethics. We’re not so sure.

The prophet Jochanaan alone, despite his fire and brimstone fanaticism, remains true to his morals and beliefs in Strauss’ operatic retelling to the point where he pays the final price. He stands out among the remaining characters, who appear to have no moral compass whatsoever.

After a troubled early history, during which his opera was routinely banned in many venues, Strauss’ “Salome” eventually became a staple in the operatic repertoire. We’ve seen and heard it many times over the years in productions ranging from tame to tempestuous. Among them all, the current Santa Fe Opera production takes the brass ring for its dramatic audacity as well as for the high quality of its cast.

Under the direction of Daniel Slater, this production takes a Freudian, psycho-sexual approach to the material, underlining what were clearly strong influences on Strauss at the time of the opera’s premiere.

The strength of this approach is that it provides tremendous support for the predicament of the mercurial Salome, hinting at early child abuse that later surfaces as a confused and vicious sexuality. At one point, during the rather bizarrely Freudian if original interpretation of the Dance of the Seven Veils, this idée fixe is a little over-the-top. But at its best, the approach results in a frightening but highly believable central character.

Better yet is soprano Alex Penda, who stars as Strauss’ unsettling title character. We were impressed last season by her performance in the lead role of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in SFO’s excellent production, but she outdoes herself in “Salome.”

From the outset, Ms. Penda portrays her character as a headstrong, impetuous, yet surprisingly fragile mess. This makes it easier to believe Salome’s gradual slide from infatuation to murderous sexual rage as she finally finds, in the implacable Jochanaan, the first individual in her short life whom she cannot bend to her will.

In so doing, she gives the SFO audience one of the finest and most convincing dramatic performances we’ve seen in many a year, morphing from a foot-stamping teen in the early scenes to a frighteningly out-of-control psychopath at the opera’s conclusion.

Amplifying the chills, Ms. Penda’s expertly-controlled and impressively expansive soprano voice becomes increasingly husky and demanding as the gripping finale approaches, making hers one of the most unnerving “Salomes” we’ve yet had the opportunity to see. It’s a task that’s made all the more difficult by Strauss’ Wagnerian demands on the lead soprano’s voice as the large orchestra swells to its massive, final climax.

The sheer passion of this final outburst leaves the audience feeling simultaneously fulfilled and exhausted. It’s quite an achievement, due in no small part to Ms. Penda’s tremendous energy and dedication to her role.

None of this is meant in the least to slight the remaining cast members, all of whom provide key support for Strauss’ central character.

Tenor Robert Brubaker is excellent as an impulsive, confused, and ultimately outfoxed Herod. This is in many ways an ungrateful role. But Mr. Brubaker portrays Herod as almost fatally damaged by his lust for his stepdaughter, as is amply illustrated by his halting, tentative, and occasionally vocals, all of which underpin his awkward but dominant sexual desires.

Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens’ perpetually disgusted Herodias gives us at least a hint as to why Herod’s sexual attentions are wandering off the reservation. While justifiably disgusted at the attention her husband is paying to her nubile daughter, Ms. Martens’ Herodias prefers to denounce and belittle him rather than trying to seduce him back, capping off the whys and wherefores of this clearly dysfunctional royal family.

The role of Herodias is a small one, but Ms. Martens’ approach, including as an actress and as a singer, particularly in the domineering way she uses her voice, provides another key piece in Strauss’ Freudian puzzle.

A great and welcome surprise is bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who lends his powerfully expressive voice to this production as a thunderingly effective Jochanaan. Oddly but interestingly portrayed in this production as a kind of scholarly religious philosopher imprisoned for his beliefs, Mr. McKinny’s Jochanaan is nonetheless still very much the thundering prophet who’s been charged with clearing the path for his cousin, Jesus, the true Messiah.

This Jochanaan not only fiercely refuses to yield to Herodias’ demands. He also fails to buckle to the beautiful and wanton Salome’s sexual temptations. Mr. McKinny does it all with his sweeping, imperious mannerisms and his frighteningly authoritative voice, giving us some sense of what power and majesty must have been present in the moral pronouncements of the ancient prophets.

In the tiny but key role as the tragic young soldier Narraboth, whose fierce love for Princess Salome is never to be fulfilled, tenor Brian Jagde turns in a poignant performance, prefiguring, very early in the opera, the kind of fate likely to befall any honest and principled man or woman in King Herod’s fatally corrupt court.

Set and costume designer Leslie Travers lends this production its somewhat post-industrial atmosphere that focuses on a rotating, container-like rectangular metal box that shape-shifts to reveal the mental travels of this opera’s characters. It’s perched precariously over a series of jagged terraces that end in the central black hole beneath which the doomed Jochanaan is imprisoned — a symbolic black hole into which every character seems doomed to fall.

Against this industrial age setting, Mr. Travers interestingly provides costumes that place this production roughly into the decade during which it was first produced, outfitting the cast as pre-World War I royalty and military as they might have appeared in the years leading up to the end of the old European aristocracy. It’s oddly reminiscent of the type of costuming we might see in a production of Strauss’ cynically comic “Rosenkavalier,” which treated the same epoch in a darkly humorous manner.

Again, the costuming is consistent with director Daniel Slater’s philosophical approach to the entire production, which takes this Biblical amorality tale and places it squarely in another more modern era in which a major power structure is about to collapse. It’s an interesting approach over all, and, as we’ve indicated, it works quite well, save for that id, ego, superego approach to the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Crowning this production is the excellent work of the SFO orchestra under the baton of David Robertson. Together, they provide the big, bold, almost swashbuckling and occasionally unnerving sound this small, intense opera demands. Combined with the excellent performance of its stellar cast, SFO’s current chilling, exhilarating production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” is a must-see.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

Four performances of “Salome” remain. For tickets and information, visit the Santa Fe Opera website.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17