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Opera San Antonio

In Review SA Salome hdl 215
Patricia Racette in Opera San Antonio's production of Salome
Photo by Karen Almond
In Review SA Salome lg 215
Racette with Alan Held’s Jochanaan
Photo by Karen Almond
In Review SA Salome 2 lg 215
Michelle DeYoung and Allan Glassman, Herodias and Herod
Photo by Karen Almond

Undertaking Richard Strauss’ Salome (Jan. 8) as its first large-scale fully-staged production, the fledgling Opera San Antonio demonstrated impressive musical muscle. Theatrical muscle? Not so much.

The production drew wide notice for soprano Patricia Racette’s staged role debut as the willful, adolescent princess who lusts after John the Baptist in Strauss’ adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play. (Racette had sung Salome in concert at the Ravinia Festival the previous summer.) The role had seemed an odd fit for Racette, who has made her illustrious mark as a lyric soprano. Salome demands a dramatic soprano of enormous stamina and power, equally comfortable with a punishingly high tessitura and with descents into the contralto range. Racette delivered the goods, her luxuriously gleaming instrument riding easily above the large orchestra and staying fresh to the very end. One might have wished for a bit more vocal risk and impetuosity at times, but her color, resources and care with the text sufficed to convey most of Salome’s perverse character. She performed the Dance of the Seven Veils with convincing lasciviousness and, at its nude conclusion, a figure that any stripper could envy. 

Alan Held’s Jochanaan carried commanding strength, huge resonance and a bright, steely edge, and the prophet’s fury was complemented by an apt touch of madness. Allan Glassman's Herod was a marvel of vocal characterization. Brian Jagde’s stirring Narraboth and Renée Rapier’s lustrous Page were pleasurable, and even the smallest roles were handsomely cast — notably the First and Second Nazarenes of Andrew Craig Brown and Eric Schmidt, respectively. Michelle DeYoung’s Herodias was beautifully sung but wanted more bitchiness. 

The San Antonio Symphony sounded glorious, and its music director, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, conducted with seamless flow and a fine ear for detail. The H-E-B Performance Hall in the recently opened Tobin Center for the Performing Arts handily passed its first test as an opera venue. The orchestra was able to project the full spectrum of Strauss’ colors and pumped plenty of sound into the hall without overpowering the singers. 

With respect to the physical production, the young company encountered a bump on the road to Galilee. The original creative team of stage director James Robinson and designer Allan Moyer was replaced because, according to Opera San Antonio chairman and general manager Mel Weingart, Moyer’s design was deemed too costly. Stage director/choreographer Candace Evans and set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland stepped into the void just two months before opening night. The results represented a retreat from the uncompromising standard the company had set last September with its inaugural production, the chamber opera Fantastic Mr. Fox by the company’s artistic director, Tobias Picker. 

The set, depicting the terrace and dining room of Herod’s palace, was architecturally indeterminate but leaned toward an anodyne functionalist modernism that was at odds with the tale’s over-the-top debauchery and out of sync with the elaborate fin de siècle costumes by Linda Pisano. The grate covering the cistern where Jochanaan was imprisoned faced the audience rather than the sky. That implausibility might be justified as suggesting a world gone mad if the idea had been carried through to other features of the design, but it wasn’t.  Chad R. Jung’s lighting design was too often flat and inattentive to the music — oblivious, for example, to the sudden change in mood when Herod feels a cold wind and hears the beating of wings. 

Some costumes were problematic. Salome’s blue gown was accoutered with a rhinestone bodice that made Racette look fat (she certainly was not), and a spectator in the balcony complained that the dress disappeared against the similarly blue floor. Jochanaan, thoroughly bundled-up, showed too little skin to justify Salome’s admiration of his body, “white as the lilies of the field.”  Herodias’ dress was not sufficiently distinguished from those of her female dinner guests. Herod’s flamboyant smoking jacket, at least, was on the money. 

Evans’ stage direction was often listless and too tame for the lurid subject matter. Perhaps that is why Racette’s Salome sometimes seemed motivated neither by lust for Jochanaan nor by hatred for her stepfather, Herod, but by sheer teen-aged boredom.

The unfocussed nature of the staging attained a bewildering apex at the end. Upon Herod’s order to “kill that woman” — meaning Salome — one black-suited, pistol-toting guard shot Herodias (!) before another shot Salome. While not exactly an ornament of civilization, Herodias's unscripted death rather diluted the dramatic effectiveness of Salome’s a few seconds later. And while there is much to be said for the impersonal efficiency of modern firearms, one needn’t be a Luddite to observe that the traditional crushing of Salome under the soldiers’ shields creates a more sensational visual image and is more appropriate to the music. 

There is a lesson in all this that a new opera company might as well learn early: Dying is easy; opera is hard. spacer 


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