In the climactic moments of composer Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” when the title character is desperately holding onto the severed head of a holy man (Jochanaan, or John the Baptist) who refused to love her, we are stunned by the utterance of an overwhelming truth said by her — “the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” This realization prompts another when Salome, after having vindictively kissed his cold lips, muses about the bitter taste, only to poetically deduct that love is, indeed, bitter. More so than that, as the audience, we discern that love, and the desire which stubbornly drives it, is a need so great that it can unravel the very person who is bitten by it.
The message, albeit an uncomfortable one, is one that needs to be said for it is our desirous nature to love and be loved that drives our very essence as human beings. Needless to say, LA Opera’s rendition of “Salome” by Richard Strauss, who adapted the German translation by Hedwig Lachmann of Oscar Wilde’s original French play, grips and transfixes the attention of the observer in order to effectively bequeath this aphorism. And, through its 105-minute duration, this one-act opera with biblical overtones – which is conducted by the revered James Conlon, directed by prodigy David Paul, set-designed by John Bury, and costume-designed by Sara Jean Tosetti – successfully illuminates the human psyche’s dark and shocking disintegration amid afflictive spikes in sound and a forebodingly pale ambiance.
The story happens exclusively in the palace of Herod, who is the King of Judea, and is married to Queen Herodias, his former sister-in-law. Herod has intense feelings for Salome, despite being both her uncle and step-father. However, Salome has become romantically preoccupied with prisoner and holy man, Jochanaan, who is being held in a cistern (underground tank). Salome thereby manipulates the Captain of the Guard (Narraboth), who is infatuated with her, to open the hatch and let Jochanaan out, who is disgusted with the depravity of his surroundings. He sternly refuses to be seduced by Salome in spite of her effusive remarks about his ivory skin, black hair, and red lips – the latter of which she insists on kissing. This segues into an extended scene depicting Herod’s incestuous lust for Salome, which culminates in her provocatively dancing (“Dance of the Seven Veils”) for her step-father, insofar that he fulfills any wish on her behalf. Of course, she uncompromisingly only wants one thing – the head of Jochanaan on a silver platter.
As Salome, Patricia Racette is a tour de force who never relents on stage. Her soprano vocals strike like love-sick arrows, highlighting a character whose craving for love will not be denied under any circumstances. Dressed in blue chiffon, Racette, as Salome, imposes her will on the inclined stage, and is fiercely believable when she inundates Jochanaan with her compelling desire to kiss his incomparably red lips. During her dance sequence with four male dancers, Racette is calmly assured in her movements, lulling us as she is picked up and lifted from one side to the other, which makes it all the more shocking when her character abruptly denudes herself. Finally, Racette communicates her persona’s scorn and confession about wanting Jochanaan to requite her desire so well that we feel pity for her even though she’s holding a decapitated head. As such, when Salome arduously raises her arms in conquest of what she’s done, the air in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion becomes hair-raisingly chilled.
Baritone Tómas Tómasson portrays Jochanaan, a man who sends word of God’s pervasively good nature, with a laudatory steadfastness in the face of temptation and even death. The booming pitch in Tómasson’s voice echoes like a righteous commandment, belying his character’s tattered rags and grime-suffused body. Moreover, Tómasson divinely captures the quintessence of a man who lives his life as an emissary of salvation, and messenger of sacrosanct words that linger honorably in opposition to moral corruption.
Seasoned opera tenor Allan Glassman is wonderful as the conflicted Herod, a character who, notwithstanding knowing the difference between right and wrong (e.g., he does everything in his power to resist carrying out Salome’s wish to have Jochanaan beheaded), is led astray by a contemptible attraction for his step-daughter. Glassman does an adept job of playing the part of a king infected by perversion, and who yet feels his inevitable comeuppance approaching him like an ominous monster with thunderclap-sounding wings. Additionally, the opera veteran skillfully emotes his character’s burgeoning conscience when he offers Salome his jewels, white peacocks, and even kingdom in lieu of Jochanaan’s life being spared. As Herod, Glassman’s piercingly resounding voice rings like an alarm of what is to come, including the redemption of his own character, who decisively stamps out the evil he helped create at the opera’s conclusion.
Lastly, Issachah Savage as Narraboth and Gabriele Schnaut as Herodias are fascinating in their portrayals as the two main supporting characters. Savage impresses with his potent tenor voice, and Schnaut is perfectly shrill and sinister as Herodias, confirming Jochanaan’s antipathy of her.
Undoubtedly, LA Opera’s “Salome” thrillingly thrives as a reminder of the madness that can be caused by an unchecked desire. It also provides insights into how easily the line between love and hate can be crossed, polluting good intentions with a wickedness that spreads like the glaring havoc of a glowering moon. In a production about frailty and death, conductor James Conlon and director David Paul help bring out powerful emotions and vocal vitality from a gifted cast, led by Patricia Racette, who gives everything she has to her role.
*LA Opera’s “Salome” runs through March 19th at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, California. The front-cover program artwork – a black-and-white drawing that shows Jochanaan’s lipstick-imprinted head being lifted by his hair – is by Marshall Dahlin of Cal State Fullerton, who won a 35-person contest arranged by the LA Opera and GroW @ Annenberg (an initiative of the Annenberg Foundation).
*For more information about LA Opera’s “Salome,” please visit laopera.org/salome