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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Opera Buff: The Met Revives Salome

Karita Mattila as Salome. Photo by Ken Howard © 2004 The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera opened its regular season on Tuesday night with a dazzling revival of Salome starring Karita Mattila. The Finnish soprano rose admirably to the many challenges of the title role, navigating the dizzying heights and gut-churning low notes with ease. Her star turn was ably supported by a solid supporting cast and virtuso performances from the orchestra pit.

When this opera premiered, Strauss commented that the work called for a "16-year old princess with the voice of an Isolde". Both of those qualities are present in Ms. Mattila's performance. Hers is a confused, oversexed adolescent, a fascinating mix of kittenish need, raw sexual energy and outright female domination. For 100 minutes, she was the focus of attention from her first entry, tossing off high notes to the moon, pulling the audience along on the journey from teasing temptress to depraved necrophiliac.

From the opening clarinet glissando, Strauss' opera is a mass of contradictions. It starts almost innocently, flirtatiously, with this production (by Jürgen Flimm) portraying Herod's court as a 1950's Hollywood cocktail party. The only sour note at the soiree is the presence of that pesky prophet John the Baptist (newcomer Juha Uusitalo) imprisoned by Herod (Kim Begley) in a cistern.

Salome, Herod's stepdaughter becomes sexually fascinated with Jokaanan. She descends into dangerous obsession when he rejects her advances. She agrees to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils, and demands the holy man's head as payment. Horrified, Herod orders her killed as the curtain crashes down.

In his Metropolitan opera debut, Juha Uusitalo wass a fine, resonant Jokaanan, stoic in his interactions with the princess. Character tenor Kim Begley was a twitchy, neurotic Herod, shrill and panicked in the opera's most atonal passages, singing all of the difficult nuances of Strauss' score. His counterpart, Ildiko Komlosi, was an impressive, piercing Herodias, whose approval of her daughter quickly vanished into a drunken haze of disgust at the opera's end. Joseph Kaiser was a fine resonant Narraboth, giving lie to the old saying that Strauss didn't write good parts for tenors. Patrick Summers led the enormous pit forces wilth lyricism and taste, conducting the opera (as Strauss himself directed) "like Fairy Music."

As for the famous Dance, it was staged here as a gender-bending exercise in tease and denial with multiple male victims dancing support roles to Ms. Mattila. Doug Varone's choreography combined elements of ballet, lap-dancing and sheer bump-and-grind. And yes, curious opera-goers, Ms. Mattila goes the full monty in this performance, leaving her audience stunned. What was even more amazing was that after receiving the severed head, Mattila then let the life and sexual anima drain from her performance, becoming nothing more than a depraved necrophage with a severed head of her very own.

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