The conducting style of Richard Strauss stood in marked contrast to the flamboyant antics of other twentieth-century maestros. In fact, violinist Yehudi Menuhin once noted, when Strauss took to the podium, there was very little evidence that the great German musician was actually conducting. Nevertheless, a close look at vintage film footage reveals that Strauss communicated with his orchestra players by way of subtle glances, arched eyebrows and the occasional (but barely noticeable) frown or smile.
When it came to his musical compositions, however, Strauss was far from understated, tending instead toward lush symphonic poems that sometimes pushed the limits of accepted taste. Indeed, Strauss drew fire from British and American moralists, who initially banned his most famous opera, Salome, only to eventually permit the now-classic work to be performed in light of the its phenomenal success elsewhere (the 1905 opening in Dresden alone earned 38 curtain calls).
Opera Colorado's current production of Salome is no less a study in contrasts. Now on stage at Boettcher Hall under the steady direction of Hans Nieuwenhuis, this lavish production features several electrifying portrayals that are somehow made all the more dynamic by the director's sober, bloodless renderings of the opera's more sensational scenes. Banking on the old adage that less is more, Nieuwenhuis and company deliver a restrained version of Strauss's one-act saga that nevertheless prompted an opening-night audience to reward the performers with a five-minute standing ovation.
The opera, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, expands upon the biblical tale of Herod, Salome and John the Baptist. The action takes place in the Judean desert (Jean Robertson's marvelously crafted set represents shifting sand with an intricate pattern of overlapping, terraced layers) where the prophet Jokanaan (the John the Baptist character, performed by Victor von Halem) dwells in an underground cistern as a prisoner of the Tetrarch Herod (William Lewis). Upon seeing the prophet, Salome (Ljuba Kazarnovskaya) declares that she's taken with Jokanaan's ruby-red lips and that she wishes to kiss him. Invoking the Deity, Jokanaan proclaims that he is not to be defiled by any woman--which naturally causes Salome to envision Jokanaan's head resting on the proverbial silver platter. In order to have that wish granted, Salome performs the Dance of the Seven Veils for Herod and his wife, Herodias (Mignon Dunn). Tantalized by his stepdaughter's sexually charged gyrations, Herod orders an executioner to behead Jokanaan. Salome sings to the prophet's severed mug for several minutes (eliciting gasps from audience members each time she leans toward the head) and eventually kisses it on the lips--an act so scandalous that Herod has no choice but to take Salome's life.
Kazarnovskaya leads the company with a mesmerizing portrayal of the doomed temptress, nearly attaining Strauss's ideal of "a sixteen-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde." A superb dancer and actress, Kazarnovskaya has an angelic singing voice that contrasts sublimely with her character's devilish impulses. The effect is to underscore the opera's theme that evil is most terrifying when it springs from an otherwise pure and noble spirit. Von Halem's resonant baritone is perfectly suited to the voice of a prophet "crying in the wilderness." What's more, his towering presence is enough to strike fear into the most unrepentant of hearts. And even though Strauss's brutal score clearly taxes Lewis's vocal abilities to their limits, his Herod is an entertaining mixture of peacockish pride and magnificent obsession. Metropolitan Opera stalwart Dunn (this year marks her 37th season with the world's preeminent opera company) and Denver native Stephen West anchor a sterling supporting cast.
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A few staging problems pop up here and there. A chorus of Jewish scribes shuffles aimlessly about in an episode that's unintentionally laughable, as is the awkwardly executed suicide of a minor character early in the drama. And audience members hoping to see a risque dance of the veils might be somewhat disappointed by choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson's muted yet well-conceived version of the famous scene (the four dancers accompanying Salome remain covered from head to toe in black robes). At the very least, one wonders why the hedonistic Herod would succumb to Salome's demand for Jokanaan's head when her dance is, in this case, a relatively tame exercise.
Minor worries aside, Nieuwenhuis's production is a spellbinding retelling of what is arguably the most controversial opera ever written. Even Strauss himself would probably flash a small, brief smile of approval.
Salome, presented by Opera Colorado through May 3 at Boettcher Concert Hall, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 830-8497.