Virginia Opera’s weirdly beautiful ‘Salome’ at GMU

Still a bit shocking after all these years, Richard Strauss’ intense one-act opera “Salome,” updated to suit today, played well to a thin audience.

Dance of the Seven Veils.
Virginia Opera's odd but interesting take on the Dance of Seven Veils in Strauss' "Salome." (Photo of Portland Opera co-production, courtesy of Virginia Opera)

FAIRFAX CITY, Virginia, February 19, 2015 – With sets and a pair of cast members shared with the Portland Opera for its 2013 production, the Virginia Opera presented their take on Richard Strauss’ classic one-act opera shocker “Salome” this weekend past at the George Mason University Center for the Arts.

Strauss’ 1905 opera was built on Oscar Wilde’s then relatively unknown French-language verse-drama, which in turn was built on the legendary biblical-era fatal encounter of the pagan princess, Salome, with the doomed John the Baptist.

The resulting opera both 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 which Salome both sings to and kisses the bloody head of the decapitated Baptist after winning it in the opera’s well-known Dance of the Seven Veils. So much for those who believe operas are boring and dull.

The Portland Opera production used here—designed by Benoit Dugardyn—updates King Herod’s palace from ancient Jerusalem to something that resembles war-damaged Nazi and/or Fascist palaces mixed with those of former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. The intent, at least symbolically, is to link Biblical era decadence with its contemporary manifestations.

In Oscar Wilde’s verse drama as well as Strauss’ opera, the plot line is quite simple. We are introduced to the decadence of King Herod’s palace and get our first encounter 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 and obvious desire for Salome.

Salome, however, is madly attracted to the imprisoned John the Baptist, who goes by the name of Jochanaan in both the play and the opera. Initially unseen, John is eventually revealed to be 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.

Salome and head of John the Baptist.
Herod (Alan Woodrow) is beside himself as Salome (Kelly Cae Hogan) gets her grisly wish in Va. Opera’s “Salome.” (Photo courtesy of Va. Opera)

We all know what happens next. Disgusted by Herod’s continuing lewd advances, Salome accedes to his request to perform an erotic dance for him when he finally agrees to give her anything she wants. But when the dance is concluded, she demands from the horrified king nothing less than the head of John the Baptist. After his numerous pleas to Salome to choose something else, he accedes to her wishes.

John’s head is brought to Salome and, in perhaps opera’s gristliest extended aria, she embraces and sings to the severed head, at which point the bewildered and enraged Herod orders his guards to terminate his stepdaughter as the curtain falls, bringing to an end this unforgettable hour-and-a-half modernist classic.

Strauss’ brilliant, difficult, chromatic and often dissonant score, shot through with leitmotif after leitmotif in the style of Richard Wagner, is the star of the show in this work, and the Virginia Symphony under the baton of Ari Pelto played this music consistently and well.

In this Virginia Opera production, soprano Kelly Cae Hogan (Salome) and tenor Alan Woodrow (Herod) reprise the roles they sang in Portland, and clearly had their respective parts well in hand during last week’s performance here.

Although a tad older than the character of the teen-aged Salome, Ms. Hogan proved to be an excellent, articulate, willful and passionate princess with the Wagnerian vocal heft required to soar above Strauss’ massive orchestration.

Although Salome enters a fair bit after the opera opens, hers is a massive part, dominating the proceedings after her first entry. Ms. Hogan’s voice capably expressed her character’s wide range of careening emotions without showing even the slightest strain from beginning to end.

A wonderful surprise in this production was sensational baritone Michael Chioldi as the mysterious prophet Jochanaan. Wild-eyed and radiating primitive energy and righteousness as you might expect from the fiery yet austere prophet who first proclaimed Jesus to the world, Mr. Chioldi backs up his character’s pronouncements of Apocalyptic doom with the force and vocal clarity of his clean, clear and authoritative instrument.

His stage presence in this production was immense and effective even though this part is relatively small. As a result, the end of the performance left the audience left with the clear sense that, while Jochanaan may have lost his head, he has clearly won the moral, philosophical and religious argument decisively when measured against Herod’s depraved court.

Herod himself is portrayed by tenor Alan Woodrow as a weak and vacillating monarch, capable of brutal decisions, but only after considerable periods of trivial deliberation. He is essentially run by his wife and daughter, even as he asserts his alleged control.

Mr. Woodrow’s interpretation is quite complex and multi-layered. With his shaved head and nattily clad in costume designer Ingeborg Bernerth’s all white, Mafia-style suit, he resembled a blustering 2015 incarnation of Benito Mussolini without the charm. Fortunately, his marvelously supple tenor voice encompassed the part perfectly, another example of the fine singing that dominated the production.

In smaller roles, mezzo-soprano was perfectly cast as the supercilious Herodias, the amoral wife of Herod, and tenor Samuel Levine was impressive in the brief but telling role of Narraboth, the Captain of the Guard who, hopelessly in love with Salome, dispatches himself early on when she spurns him yet again.

Singers, musicians, and the strangely evocative Portland/Virginia Opera set combined under the direction of Stephen Lawless to present one of the more chilling “Salome’s” we’ve yet seen—yet another feather in the cap of the Virginia Opera, a company that, while experiencing financial pressure, has still been able to come up with an amazingly successful string of truly intriguing opera productions.

Rating: *** ½ (3 ½ out of 4 stars)

The Virginia Opera’s last production of this season, Giuseppe Verdi’s well-loved “La Traviata,” will be at GMU’s Center for the Arts the weekend of March 21, 2015. Check with GMU’s box office for details.

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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