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Saturday, February 5, 2011

DVD Review: The Finnish Flash

Salome from the Met with Karita Mattila.
by Paul Pelkonen
Femme fatale: Karita Mattila as Salome.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera has released this fine 2008 performance of Richard Strauss' Salome as part of a Sony series of Met Live in HD broadcasts, now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Karita Mattila is the title role--the princess of Judea who does the most famous strip-tease in history in exchange for the head of Jokaanan (John the Baptist.)

The Finnish soprano is a slinky, blonde force of nature in this production, soaring to Strauss' glittering vocal peaks and meeting all the physical challenges of the role. Playful at first, monstrous at the end, her Salome is a little girl gone very wrong. And yes, she does the Dance of the Seven Veils herself, although the camera cuts away (to a thrilled Herod) at the moment when she bares all.

The object of her desire is fellow Finn Juha Uusitalo. This is a voice and star in development. His rich, dark bass has resonance and power, and much potential. However, his Jokaanan sounds better when echoing out of the cistern. He produces a vibrato which grows more pronounced as the role goes on, and is most noticeable when Jokaanan curses Salome. Kim Begley is a reliable, experienced Herod in the late stages of his career. Ildikó Komlóski is a large-voiced, if unsteady Herodias. Joseph Kaiser displays a fine, light tenor as Narraboth.

Ms. Mattila's finest moments come after the Veils, when she floats her first "den kopf des Jokaanan" with a pianissimo high note, then plunging into the depths for the sprechstimme phrases where she demands the head. She turns on the power in the final scene, singing to the severed head with warmth and passion, scaling those forbidding high notes in a fearless performance.

Jürgen Flimm's production re-imagines the work as a cocktail party at the end of the world, against a backdrop of 20th century doo-wop archictecture. A scaffold and mine-shaft splits the middle of the stage. From this, a rusted, metal dumb-waiter arises, revealing the bound, blindfolded, and later, beheaded Jokaanan--without his body. This is an effective moment.

This was an early Live in HD effort, and the opportunity to see this particular opera close-up (very close up) lends the drama a whole new dimension. It appears that the recording team was still learning where to put the microphones, and the singers' breathing is audible. (This is particularly disturbing when Ms. Mattila has kissed the bloody head.) The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is in exceptional form, led by Patrick Summers in a bravura performance.

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