Those three affable Princes of Serendip, patron saints of fortuitous coincidence, made their presence known here last week in a cheer-inducing pair of oddly complementary theatrical events. Hooray number one for the Lensic's screening of GB Shaw's Man and Superman, a production by Great Britain's National Theatre of that talky talky play. Hooray number two: Santa Fe Opera's smashing new production of Richard Strauss' shocker, Salome. How complementary? Observe.
Irishman, puritan and iconoclast Shaw, in his quasi-operatic sprawl of a play, parodied the hoary Don Juan legend, as treated by the Mozart/Da Ponte opera, Don Giovanni. In a characteristic Shavian twist, his Juan/Giovanni/John Tanner doesn't go for the gals. A self-described revolutionist, he denounces women as male-devouring deniers of the so-called Life Force, turns his back on the fair sex and will have nothing to do with marriage. Until…
Segue to Salome, where another John, aka the Baptist, aka Jochanaan, denounces women in the blackest terms, specifically Herodias and her (ahem) virginal daughter Salome. His mildest denunciation, "Back, daughter of Babylon! By woman came evil into the world," spins the anti-feminist screed into its Judeo-Christian context, something that Shaw's Juan would never do. But Shaw's Juan would surely identify Salome as Exhibit A among those women who, figuratively, seek to destroy the male of the species. When cast here as the opera's heroine, she literally devours Jochanaan "as one bites a ripe fruit." That's quoting Oscar Wilde's very words, as ur-librettist for Strauss.
Shaw's hero remarks that "music is the brandy of the damned." SFO's Salome, under the stage direction of Daniel Slater, sets and costumes by Leslie Travers, lighting by Rick Fisher, tosses us headlong into a flamboyant pit of psychosexual self-discovery. No Exit for whom? That infernal biblical triad: teenager Salome, her mum Herodias, her stepdad Herod. And I doubt you've ever seen, heard or imagined anything quite like this version of the opera. (Beware of upcoming spoilers.)
Forget about that crowded panorama of Herod's court, dense tapestry of his kingdom swirling with guards, smoking torches, preening ambassadors of Rome and Egypt. Slater offers a bare-bones closet drama that's less about exotic Orientalist atmosphere than about stripping away mere appearances to reveal the blackness within its characters. Call it psycho-drama. Call it an exercise in psycho-pathology. Call it Salome unveiled.
No seven veils here, no cistern, no moon, no Nubian executioner. A Confucian injunction, "Make it new," prevails. It's not especially novel to squeeze the action into jaded fin-de-siècle Viennese-secession attitudes. Been there, done that. What is novel is an intense, shallow-stage focus on the perverse trinity that Wilde and Strauss spawned.
Visually disconcerting at first, a large ensilvered boxcar fills the stage. As the drama's action revolves, so does this bulky contraption circle round to become another, inner stage. At first, it reveals a banquet occupied by Herod's over-dressed court, a glittery parody of the Last Supper. Then it becomes Jochanaan's "cistern," a dilapidated study occupied by the frantic Gospel-scripturing prophet. Next it serves as proscenium for Salome's elaborate danse macabre dream pantomime, unveiling the truths of a triply repressed unconscious mind in a slow waltz.
I'm being intentionally coy here. Suffice to say that this pantomimed flashback psychodrama involves, first, Philip, Salome's father; next, a younger Herod, Philip's murderous brother; and finally Salome as a child. Freudian revelations abound. Say hello to all that psycho-lingo: projection, sublimation, displacement, transference. The gang's all there.
And when the boxcar returns us to the beheaded Jochanaan's cell, we will have supped full with horrors. Salome's necrophilic liebestod has never been more shattering than here.
Nor has the SFO's orchestra, under the direction of David Robertson. Longtime maestro of the St. Louis Symphony, he's been eager for some little while to lead this Strauss opera. His stunning Wozzeck four years ago set an exalted SFO standard, now surpassed by a reading of Salome that could hardly be bettered. Perhaps the intimacy of Slater's staging enhances the in-your-face brilliance of Robertson's massive forces: spidery woodwinds, noble brass, orchestral trills that tingle the spine and climaxes that shatter the nerves.
But rarely overpower Alex Penda's impetuous, haunted Salome. Lithe and shapely, she could almost be the petulant princess of 16 years that Strauss had in mind. Penda sings a lighter, brighter, more lyrical heroine than most voices we're accustomed to hearing in the role, but with all the necessary oomph and dramatic focus.
As Jochanaan, Ryan McKinny makes an imposing, stentorian debut, though not particularly lean and mean as here directed. More neurotic than prophetic, he's a reminder that this Freudian household drama partakes also of Ibsen if not Strindberg. Robert Brubaker's Herod is less hysterical than usual, more convincing in his guilt-ridden self-perception. The Herodias, well sung by Michaela Martens, seems less vehement too, as the action compels her own self-knowledge.
Pay special attention to Brian Jagde, strong and sweet-toned as a Narraboth who responds to Salome's obsession with the Baptist's body/hair/lips with self-pleasuring erotic sympathy. Peixin Chen sings a serene First Nazarene, with lesser roles superbly taken by the company's apprentice artists.
But trust GBS to get in a last word. Acquainted with Strauss and a friend to his music, Shaw was slyly au courant with another contemporary sage: "I pay a serious if disrespectful attention to Freud." Good advice?
8:30 pm Wed., July 22 & Fri., July 31;
8 pm Thur., Aug. 6 & 27, Tues., Aug. 11 & 18. $31-$279
Santa Fe Opera House
301 Opera Drive,