Wednesday, July 8, 2009

McVicar's Salome: Bloody Genius

Let's get this out of the way first: With all the negatives continually hurled at Nadja Michael's voice, I happen to think she is a spectacular singer and seriously cannot understand the criticisms about her voice. Her Tosca was tough to gauge as it was mic'd onstage, but other roles I've heard now have impressed me favorably and none more than Salome. If she ain't your cup of tea, read elsewhere for a rave review follows.

Nadja Michaels may be the best Salome I've ever seen (including Mattila's stunning turns the past few years) and David McVicar's production is one of the most disturbing, brilliant and perfect weddings of music and staging I've seen for a production of ANY opera. It's the first Salome I've seen in - forever maybe - that had not one false step and seamlessly strung the evening along with shock, horror and beauty. Michael's voice was thrilling, possessing a quick flickering of the text that I haven't heard from a Salome since Cheryl Studer's recording - and before that Behrens. The text (as with the two previous ladies) flies off of her tongue, ever deliciously carressed with maximum impact on every syllable. While I try to remain impartial in matters of diva-weight, there is no denying the thrill of watching a singer whose body possesses the true and rare physique du role, as Michael's does. Her body is incredible by any standard and she truly moves with the lithe moves of a dancer gracefully throughout the entire role, which seems almost through-choreographed for her, adding a liquid sensuality from start to bloody finish one is simply unlikely to encounter in this opera. Credit Andrew George who is listed in the program as responsible party for Choreography and Movement.

I had heard so many negatives about Michael's Salome that though I've owned the disc for a while, it remained unplayed until I felt ready to hear her "out of tune" singing. I'm only sorry I waited so long, for I found little to complain of and almost everything to enjoy in her vocal interpretation. During the final scene she does exhibit a tendency to squarely land on some big notes, but then sort of slides into flatness - these notes (and one just plain "wrong" note), aside this is a thrilling performance for its totality of the character she and McVicars have created for us. With an often thrilling top end and a rich, plummy bottom we really get those truly creepy, loonytunes moments from the Judean Princess - and more than once she chills the blood.

There was much criticism of the Es Devlin's set - splitting the stage into two levels - an upper level revealing the elegant feast of Herodes and his guests, while a large staircase brings us to a basement which quite resembles another world (there have been many comparisons to Pasolini's "Salo" film and they do seem to be there). Here we find showers, people in various states of copulating and dressing, a hog hanging from a hook, and all manner of symbolism pointing toward stereotypical debauchery. It is powerfully affecting and becomes the setting for nearly of all the evening's action.

Thomas Moser gives a welcome new spin on Herodes; not as outwardly vile when we first meet him, but depraved beyond belief and disturbing. When he makes his first request for Salome to dance, he does a little Carmen Miranda number himself that's both hilarious and disturbing. He sings the music with an almost baritonal timbre to his sound and a lieder singer's precision in painting pictures with words. One or two higher notes threaten to get away, but this is the most integrated and powerful performance of this role I've yet encountered and, as with Salome herself, I love the creation director and singer come up with. Each of his requests (eat, drink, dance) he makes not only to Salome, but a sort of "stand in" for her, a handsome black slave with exotic "Island Hair" who DOES sip the wine and bite the fruit, as Herod's hands wander around him. There is so much "business" going on in every moment, but not one bit of it feels extraneous or too much, so wonderfuly is it woven into the total fabric of this show.

I was completely unprepared for the Dance of the 7 Veils which is a true coup d'theatre. The set disappears before our eyes and a series of rooms - one for each veil - moves across the stage, as Prince and Princess perform a horrifying pas de deux that McVicars and choreographer Andrew George turn into one of the most gripping pieces of theatre imaginable. The pair waltz elegantly through these tableau, each room revealing a more disturbing level of the girl's degradation and descending us further into the hellish world that formed such a bizarre creature as she. The rear wall of the stage has vivid projected images changing with each room and which help reveal even more of this bizarre couple's ritual. Whatever painstaking rehearsals were required pay off handsomely as Michaels and Moser perform this long, devilish dance with a sense of detached elegance that is both creepy and utterly beautiful. Moser is not a small man, and it is thrilling to see him waltz with such panache and style, his feet sliding across the floor like a natural dancer - not a moment of awkwardness or sloppiness - this is Herod's game and he plays it brilliantly. We don't see what happens in the final room/veil, with the set returning to its original design as Herod sings his lines re-entering the room. It's a stunning moment in an evening full of them.

Michael Volle is in remarkable voice as Jokanaan and he belts out his prophecies and denunciations of Herod's court with authority and ringing, magesterial tone. His long scene with Salome is, predictably, chilling theatre, the pair of them playing off of each other, each offering a wonderful sense of outrage and ego. Volle, more than any Jokanaan I can think of in recent times - has an animalistic sense of rage to go along with his piety. His physical manipulations of Salome may strike some as too much "off the page" but for others (like me) it's always fun seeing that there really IS more than one way to skin a cat!

Like the best Herodias's Michaela Schuster makes a meal out of her assignment, strutting and chewing up the scenery and driving her husband bananas.

Joseph Kaiser (looking like a beefy Josh Groban) sings rapturously as Narraboth and (for once) Salome looks at his corpse with a tender concern, even Herod kisses him before having him carted off. Once again, it is this kind of detail (knowing Narraboth's noble past and the affection felt for him) that makes McVicars productions so engaging - offering so much to chew on besides the obvious.

Duncan Meadows' silent executioner plays a big role here, barefoot, but dressed in a long miltary trenchcoat he hints at things to come, and, sword ever present, seemingly ready to burst into violence at any given moment. When Herodias gives him the ring, she removes his trenchcoat revealing his naked bodybuilder physique and he descends into the cistern. When he re-emerges, covered in blood, he holds aloft the prophet's head in an image instantly evoking a twisted version of Caravaggio's "David and Goliath." His dispatching of the princess at opera's end also produces some chills.

There has been criticism of Phillipe Jordan's leading of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, but I found his performance to be ideal for this setting, and if it doesn't always have the remarkable clarity that von Karajan or Bohm (or more recently Gergiev) bring to the quieter moments of this piece, it is still damned fine playing, with the big moments sounding as thrilling as anyone could demand from a live performance.

I think McVicar staged this for me and I thank him. Most of the reviews I read when this was first staged last year, spoke of how "unshocking" everything felt. One critic who attended both opening night and reviewed this DVD set, wrote that staging this work out of its context (?) takes away its ability to shock us. I disagree and LOVE what McVicar did here - which was to basically scare the you-know-what out of me, making me wonder and guess at what could possibly happen next - which almost NEVER happens anymore! While the critics all took potshots, audiences gobbled this up and the roar for Miss Michael when the curtain opens to reveal her alone, is deafening.

I really love this Salome and have been able to think of little else for two days now. Not for everyone, but what really is?

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