The other day my Taos nephew handed me a book and ordered, "Read this. It's the real stuff." The book? A collection of sharp journalistic essays written in pre-war Paris by Joseph Roth. A sentence caught my eye: "German history [and I'd add German musical ***image1***history since, say, 1820] is full of gruesome material only waiting for the right poetic interpretation."
I'd prefer to postpone a discussion of Richard Strauss' 1905 Salome as an expression of Teutonic zeitgeist, since opera in general has a soft spot for gruesome material. But there's no denying that the instant popularity of this particular piece suggests a certain not-surprising darkness not only in the German soul, but in the so-called modern consciousness as well.
Salome's popularity at the Santa Fe Opera is a matter of record. The current production is the company's 10th, and the current production is one of the strongest the company has mounted in all these years. Janice Watson sings the forbidding title role with conviction and relative ease, and the staging by Bruce Donnell has a clarity and focus that Salome seldom receives.
This is Watson's first-ever Salome. She's scored palpable hits here in the title roles of two other Strauss pieces, Arabella and Daphne. Her Salome follows a similar lyrical vein, and as such comes closer to Strauss' own conception of a heroine with a lighter, more youthful voice than we usually hear. Part of the time Watson sounds like a canny, coaxing teen pushing sensuality to get a BMW. Then sexual obsession kicks in, her voice grows up, and Watson delivers a searing, indelible reading of the final scene that leaves the audience squirming.
She's more than supported by John Fiore's multi-faceted orchestra. Strauss at Santa Fe has never sounded better or more boisterous. There's a beauty in the bellow of the brass, countered ***image2***by sumptuous string tone and finely wrought work from the woodwinds. Fiore rarely lets his massive forces intimidate the stage.
As Jokanaan, Greer Grimsley makes a stentorian impression. Dimitri Pittas sings Narraboth with passion, though costumed rather like a Humvee. Anne-Marie Owens is a solid, less demonstrative Herodias than is usual, and we're grateful for Ragnar Ulfung, as a neurasthenic Herod. The man's a miracle, aged 79, still active and impressive in the role.
Donnell views Salome as a chamber opera, intimate in its characterization and clarity of movement. Sets and costumes by Neil Patel are straightforward and unfussy. And, for directness and sheer gruesomeness, the last five seconds of this staging can't be beat.