James Conlon & Chicago Symphony Orchestra | Ravinia Festival

In Review Ravinia Salome hdl 814
Patricia Racette in the title role of Salome with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia
© Patrick Gipson/Ravinia
In Review Ravinia salome lg 814
Maestro James Conlon
© Patrick Gipson/Ravinia
In Review Ravinia salome lg 2 814
Egils Silins as Jochanaan and Racette
© Patrick Gipson/Ravinia

Salome and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have proved a potent combination in the past — as witness the orchestra's legendary outing with Birgit Nilsson and Georg Solti in 1974. Expectations were running high at Ravinia on August 2 for CSO's latest offering of Strauss's opera with a very different protagonist — Patricia Racette in a risky, and rather unexpected role debut.

The evening found Racette in excellent vocal estate. There was some minor slippage of pitch in the early scenes perhaps, but also a luminous thread of silver in the timbre that worked beautifully in establishing the character's girlishness. (Strauss, it must be remembered, suggested the role to a number of sopranos more lyric in endowment than the Wagneriennes generally associated with the opera including, albeit with reduced orchestration, Elisabeth Schumann.)  Racette's skill with word-painting is formidable and she did marvelous things with the text, deploying a telling bite in her description of the "Schreckliche Dinge" Jochanaan voiced from his cistern, and a spun-sugar manipulation of Narraboth. Racette was clearly operating at maximum capacity in the final monologue, but evidenced no tonal spreading under pressure and maintained an attractive, fully supported sound throughout. How this concert assumption will translate to stage performance remains to be seen — her first fully staged Salome, at Opera San Antonio, will be in early 2015 — but on initial encounter, Racette's depraved little Judean princess was a most impressive feat of artistic derring-do, and a potent reminder of the potential for intelligent singers to conquer what might seem an unlikely assignment through technical acumen and sheer determination. 

The balance of the cast was uniformly first-rate. Joseph Kaiser's passionate Narraboth initiated vocal proceedings with a beautiful tenor that has grown appreciably richer in overtones and easily a half-size larger since his outing in the role at Lyric Opera in 2006. As Jochanaan, Egils Silins created an imposingly masculine presence in both body and voice. The Latvian bass-baritone sang gloriously, and was particularly impressive in fining down his booming sound for the prophet's meltingly lyrical description of Christ with his disciples on the Sea of Galilee.  

Allan Glassman, jumping in at the eleventh hour for an indisposed Wolfgang Schmidt, delivered his familiar, erotically obsessed Herod with expected aplomb, and Gabriele Schnaut fielded a delightfully bitchy Herodias. Renée Rapier was the sympathetic Page. Craig Colclough and Evan Boyer essayed the Soldiers (both later jumping in as Nazarene and Cappadocian/ Fifth Jew respectively) while Rodell Rosel, Mark Schowalter, Adam Klein, and John Easterlin rounded out the Jews, with Schowalter also assuming the second Nazarene. 

James Conlon led a stunning account of the score, notable for a sensitive delivery of Strauss's clever aural evocations of everything from sly Egyptians, to bombastic Romans and chilling desert winds.  Particularly admirable was the crisp clarity of specific instrumental contributions: the tense, squawking strings before Jochanaan's beheading, and the consistently excellent work from the percussion section were practically worth the price of admission. 

Just in case matters proved too hot to handle, Ravinia had a droll surprise waiting at the gates.  One could have a photo taken with a life-size cutout of Racette, with one's head placed on the Silberschüssel where Jochanaan's should be — a darkly amusing coda to an evening of magnificent music-making on Chicago's north shore. spacer


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