Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Mattila's First Go at Salome

Hungry (and tired of waiting) for the Met to release its DVD of Mattila as Salome, last night I watched Karita Mattila’s first go at Salome from Paris. This morning I’m still thinking about it. And still drained. While it was, perhaps, not perfect in every way, it was an entirely thrilling and completely captivating performance, and Mattila is far better than some who’ve made careers with the role, and offers far more than an inkling of just how deep this character would sink into her marrow and ooze out of her pores a season or two later when she took Manhattan by storm in Jurgen Flimm’s “controversial” production for the Met.

Director Lev Dodin’s stark, spare production for the Bastille Opera in Paris creates an enormous playing field for all of the horrors of Herod’s palace to play out. At stage left rear is a tall parapet with long staircase, while midway across the back is dominated by enormous Cypress trees lends an air of privacy – as if to close off this place from the rest of the world. A pale, moon makes its presence known wending its orbit across the rear scrim, appearing first behind the trees, then during Salome’s unraveling, as we witness an eclipse. Nice touch, that. Mattila’s Salome is a depraved wreck from the moment she sets her sandled toes onto the stage. Dodin makes us “feel” that almost everything we’re about to witness is a regular occurrence for this household.

(Note: Mattila here bears an uncanny resemblance to the actress Kim Catrell of “Sex and the City” fame). This is a hair twirling, fidgety, disaster in the making, attired in a revealing sheer black top and black “bra” (providing what pop star Ms. Aguilera refers to as “reverse cleavage,” ) as her breasts keep dropping from beneath it. (Yeah, you try not to watch!) Ever present, her taut, white belly beneath the sheer fabric can only be described as “delicious.” A free flowing black skirt appears to be woven with almost coinsized silver sparkles. Manipulative, sexually aware and willing to use her body shamelessly, this Salome’s naïveté partially blinds her to the depravity and horror all around her.

As Narraboth, William Burden looks and sounds terrific in his stylized Roman Centurion skirt and breastplate, giving off much leg, his desire for Salome captured perfectly, and yet, he recoils in shame, and horror as the Princess asks to be shown the Prophet. Understandable as she gropes and grabs at him, pressing her flesh around and into his. This girl is truly depraved and we’re watching the eye popping descent into her madness. It’s all so deliciously wrong.

Jokanaann is not buried in a cistern, but contained in a two story high prison cell hiding in the wings off stage right. For their encounter, the enormous cell slowly thrusts out from the wings all the way to the center of the stage (it must be 20 feet long), and gives the impression of a Jokanaan as a dangerous animal. As the prophet, Falk Struckmann is found in glorious voice (is he ever not?) and his attention to the text is riveting, though his costume (a ratty “saints” robe from a renaissance painting, covers that “white body” the girls sings about from head to toe) leaves much to be desired.

Chris Merritt doesn’t seem quite as depraved as he should (which in a way is more chilling) and (for the most part) sings the role better than many of the barkers we’ve grown accustomed to (though lately, I’ve noticed a trend towards aging lyrics in this role – which makes much better musical sense than a heldentenor’s swansong).

Ana Silja is not nearly as effective as I’d hoped, while playing gamely throughout (and having some good moments) she becomes, at times, inaudible and was oddly absent at the curtain call - a glaringly missed presence. (I later read she had taken ill and was replaced in subsequent performances).

The dance: Unlike most productions where the soprano disappears for a few minutes to get dressed – we realize this Salome is already ready for the dance – as she must be all the time. It’s all a little creepy. Mattila, a natural athlete, performs a sometimes sensual, sometimes violent dance, sometimes barely moving at all. But with deep lunges, crawling,, back bends, hanging upside down from Jokanaan’s prison, the panels making up her skirt begin coming off (as does the bra) until by the end, she is nude, save for the sheer black top hiding nothing. As she collapses to the floor and Herodes waxes with lusty enthusiasm, Mama, simply walks over and covers her daughter with the yellow outer robe she’d been wearing all evening and again, you sense there is a sick routine in all of this.

As Jokanaan sings and tries to shun her, Mattila’s princess climbs all over the bars her arms, violently jamming between them in unsuccessful attempts to grab the meat of this man. During that remarkable postlude of their scene, Salome hangs backwards from the bars, refusing to let go, struggling to keep him out there – and the scene of her being dragged backwards across the stage is a visually perfect counterpoint to what’s going on in the score. It’s brilliant.

Musically, the role holds no terrors for Mattila, she sounds stunning almost always and digs into the text as few sopranos have, playing with it, teasing us – and her stepfather, every step. A few of the early on high notes have a rather unlovely quality to them, pushed and steely – not attractive, but still somehow thrilling. Warmed up, however, the Final Scene is vocally gorgeous and dramatically one of the most incredible – “can’t take your eyes off her” performances imaginable.

Her business with the head a study in understated gruesomeness, as she stares, talks to, tries to animate her prize while being alternately fascinated and horrified by it until – completely unhinged - she “goes in for the kill” as her parents – and we – watch on in utter revulsion. An interesting bit of staging for the end: Having ceased writhing (but not moaning) when her stepfather barks his final command, Salome rises, spent, but defiant, as guards appear from behind the trees and the parapet opening, where they’d been, hidden at the ready all night. A brilliant theatrical moment that leaves the exhausted soprano standing, triumphant at the audience at the black out. Paris goes mad.

James Conlon led the Paris forces in a sensual, richly colored reading – but also seemed to emphasize (rightly, in my opinion) how “weird” and “modern” this score can be. This is an odd “product” – (I got mine from with (blessedly) no subtitles, but no cast or production credits, titles or television station logo, etc. The picture is consistently good though not brilliant in the HighDef manner many seem to require these days. Sound is on the lower end of the spectrum (but clear), requiring me to keep pumping up the volume until I could get it at a satisfactory level. Whatever the source of this, I’m grateful to have it and it gives a fascinating window into Mattila’s first assumption of a role she seems to have been born to sing. And play.


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