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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Opera Review: The Girl Who Has (Almost) Everything

Patricia Racette brings her Salome to the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A head in the opera business: Patricia Racette holds the severed head of Jokaanan (John the Baptist)
in the climactic scene of Salome. Photo by Ken Howard © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
When the Metropolitan Opera announces a cast change in the weeks leading up to an important mid-season revival, opera critics sometimes get nervous. (Your humble blogger is no exception.) At the Met on Monday night where the company's first 2016 performance of the Richard Strauss shocker  Salome was about to take place, a sense of foreboding, even trepidation hung over New York's largest opera house. Patrons crossing the plaza were unusually subdued. This revival (originally meant to feature soprano Catherine Naglestad) now starred a familiar Met trouper: soprano Patricia Racette. Ms. Racette, who has been acclaimed in past seasons but more hit-and-miss in recent years, had never sung this role before in New York.



Ms. Racette is no stranger to saving a production. In 1999, she stepped in for Angela Gheorghiu in the company's then-new Franco Zeffirelli staging of La Traviata. The title role of Salome is made of much stronger stuff. Strauss called for "a 16-year-old with the voice of an Isolde." This is a long, grueling sing. Salome is at the center of the action for the length of the entire opera, from the first bars where the soldier Narraboth (Kang Wang, in a strong debut) moons over her beauty to the depraved final pages. Along the way, she has to perform the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils, a sort of Biblical hoochie-coochie show that is performed in exchange for the decapitated head of John the Baptist. That dance should be performed by the leading lady (or an acceptable ballerina substitute) in a credible and (hopefully) seductive manner. It is quickly followed by the stomach-churning finale, as the no-longer-deprived Salome sings a peroration to her bloody prize before meeting a quick and grisly death.

At first, Ms. Racette seemed ill at ease on the garish lucite-and-mosaic set of Jurgen Flümm's 2004 production. Picked out in bright blues and oranges, with a cardboard desert on stage left, this set looks like the kind of Las Vegas lounge environment that the company's current Rigoletto only aspires to match in tackiness. Ms. Racette was girlish and seductive in her opening duet with Mr. Wang, who made a strong debut in the tenor role of Narraboth. She began to veer from the written pitch in her long interrogation of the prophet Jokaanan, who spends most of the opera confined in a cistern downstage. As the prophet, Željko Lučić was all over the place, pulling sharp and flat in big moments and sometimes taking Ms. Racette with him. For her part, she sang with a wide, spreading vibrato that threatened to degenerate into a wobble, but pulled it together, using the vocal peccadilloes to help instigate her character's neediness and instability.

Ms Racette's singing improved once Mr. Lučić was safely back in his cistern. She produced a silvery, molten sound in her long duet with Herod, the ruler of Judea and her depraved stepfather. As portrayed by tenor Gerhard Siegel, this Herod was a study in neurosis. One wasn't sure if he were most afraid of Salome, of Herodias (played by mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera with appropriate detachment) or of Iokanaan's voice as it boomed out of the cistern. Thankfully, it was at this point that Ms. Racette’s voice sweetened and settled in for the long middle stretch of this one-act opera. She found deep fissures of coy flirtation, veiled, girlish threats and best of all, that unwholesome quality of raw, near-incestuous sex that is central to this opera's success. The audience sat, riveted like Herod herself, unwilling and unable to turn away.

Even as Jokaanan languished beneath the stage, German conductor Johannes Debus labored in the pit. This was the house debut for the Canadian Opera Company's music director. He chose an approach of slow tempos and maximum clarity, techniques which supported Ms. Racette's performance. There was an emphasis on chamber-music qualities of this amazing score, giving the lightness of texture that Strauss wanted and so rarely got. The orchestra was kept in strict check until the Dance of the Seven Veils. Here, Ms. Racette brought some fresh ideas: an androgyne top hat, a good deal of vaguely sadomasochistic choreography with two strapping, tuxedoed dancers and at its height, the diva's best impression of Madonna as she had the boys peel off her fishnets (Herod ran off with her shoe), shimmied out of her bustier and finally treated the audience to a good, long flash.

Back to the singing. Ms Racette climbed atop the cistern's scaffolding for the intense passage that led up to the removal of Jokanaan's head by a strapping, sword-wielding executioner. This is the most intense and horrific passage in the opera, featuring a nasty bit of orchestration. Strauss has the bassists pinch up on the neck of their instrument and strike their strings sharply with the bow, producing sharp little chords that sound strikingly like a spinal cord being severed. Mr. Debus let the hounds loose in the sickening, shifting chord that accompanied the appearance of the severed head, although the full horror of that famous moment was diminished by having the foam rubber prop arrive by chain-lift elevator.

For the final apotheosis to the head, Ms. Racette found a bright voice and slightly grainy tone that swelled above the surging orchestra. And yet, her acting was as riveting as her singing, signalling her character's fall over the edge into depravity and madness as she cooed and crooned to a foam rubber replica of Mr. Lučić's head. As Salome went down that last road of no return, this characterization emerged both as a magnificent exercise in perversity and as a peculiar feminist statement. Given her upbringing in Herod's court, Salome could be no other than what she was: the princess whose every wish was fulfilled at a terrible mortal cost. When the final chords sounded and the executioner advanced, sword held high, there was almost a sense of palpable relief. The monster would be slain at last.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.