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Ensemble

Magnificent Performances

'Salome' from Arizona,
reviewed by MARIA NOCKIN

 

Richard Strauss' German opera, Salome, is based on a French play by Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. Although he denied it publicly, Wilde probably wrote it for Sarah Bernhardt. He may also have been influenced by Gustav Moreau's paintings on the theme. Since Biblical subjects were forbidden on stage in England, the play was first performed in Paris. On 11 February 1896, Salome was premièred at the Téâtre de l'Oeuvre to mixed reviews.

When poet, Hedwig Lachmann (the grandmother of film and TV director Mike Nichols) translated it into German, it began to garner a more favorable audience. At first it could only be staged privately because of the censors, but in 1903, the Max Reinhardt production with shapely Gertrud Eysoldt in the title role was finally performed for the Berlin public. Strauss had seen it at a private showing the year before, however, and he was already studying the possibilities of making it into an opera. Rejecting a ready-made libretto that had been sent to him, the composer decided to set much of Lachmann's text to music without using a librettist.

Molly Fillmore as Salome and Wayne Tigges as Jokanaan in the Arizona Opera production of 'Salome'. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller
Molly Fillmore as Salome and Wayne Tigges as Jokanaan in the Arizona Opera production of 'Salome'. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller

The opera première took place in Dresden on 9 December 1905. As with the play, there was plenty of controversy. The Salome, Marie Wittich, looked nothing like the Aubrey Beardsley pictures that accompanied some versions of the play. She complained that her reputation for propriety was at stake so a substitute was engaged to dance for her. Other singers said the music was difficult to learn and intstrumentalists complained that their parts were unplayable. Although some critics were not pleased with the first performance, theater-goers came in droves and within two years the work was performed in fifty other opera houses.

Molly Fillmore as Salome and Luretta Bybee as Herodias in the Arizona Opera production of 'Salome'. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller
Molly Fillmore as Salome and Luretta Bybee as Herodias in the Arizona Opera production of 'Salome'. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller

On Saturday evening, 14 November and Sunday afternoon, 15 November 2009, Arizona Opera presented its two casts of Salome in Tucson. The traditional production by Sonja Frisell had simple and functional sets by the director and Harry Frehner. The soft colored, attractive costumes were by Raquel Stewart and the Arizona Opera Costume Shop.

Molly Fillmore as Salome and Chris Merritt as Herod in the Arizona Opera production of 'Salome'. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller
Molly Fillmore as Salome and Chris Merritt as Herod in the Arizona Opera production of 'Salome'. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller

Molly Fillmore, who sang the Saturday performance, was a tall and lithe Salome. Her voice cut through the orchestral tapestry with ringing burnished tones. Both vocally and physically she seems to be a good fit for this role. A relatively young dramatic soprano, her many-colored, opulent voice already has the heft for this part in a moderately large house. On Sunday, the title role was sung by Nancy Gustafson who gave an intense rendition while flooding the hall with waves of beauteous sound. Only on one or two occasions did she have a slight problem with intonation. Choreographer Melissa Lowe provided the singers with simple but graceful movements and the Dance of the Seven Veils was smoothly performed by each Salome.

Molly Fillmore in the title role of Richard Strauss' 'Salome' at Arizona Opera. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller
Molly Fillmore in the title role of Richard Strauss' 'Salome' at Arizona Opera. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller

The role of Jokanaan was also given to two singers. On Saturday Wayne Tigges energized his lyrics with conviction and looked the picture of a dungeon-dwelling prisoner with his white limbs and voluminous, unkempt hair. Sunday's performance gave us the justly famous Greer Grimsley whose stunningly powerful voice enriched his incisive portrayal of the role. Of all the curses in opera, his curse would be the hardest to forget because of the way it came through the waves of the accompanying orchestral tone poem.

Wayne Tigges as Jokanaan in the Arizona Opera production of 'Salome'. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller
Wayne Tigges as Jokanaan in the Arizona Opera production of 'Salome'. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller

The rest of the cast was the same for both shows. Luretta Bybee was a seemingly bored Herodias who did not like her husband flirting with her daughter. She sang with sultry tones and you could see that she had once been the temptress who captured the potentate. As Herod, Chris Merritt gave a wonderful portrait of a harried ruler who controls everyone in his realm except for the women in his own family.

Molly Fillmore as Salome and Wayne Tigges as Jokanaan in the Arizona Opera production of 'Salome'. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller
Molly Fillmore as Salome and Wayne Tigges as Jokanaan in the Arizona Opera production of 'Salome'. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller

Noah Stewart's Narraboth showed the lyric tenor charms that make him a fine Rodolfo in La bohème. Basses David Lawrence Michael and David Cushing were robust and virile soldiers. Apprentice artist Grace Brooks had a rather light voice for the role of the Page, while Samantha Barnes was an energetic Slave and John Fulton was a secure Cappadocian. The five Jews: Doug Jones, Torrance Blaisdell, Barry Stein, Cameron Schutza and Jeremy Milner gave an excellent rendition of their ensemble, while Scott Sikon and Francisco Renteria were harmonious Nazarenes.

In Salome, the orchestra shares stardom with the diva. World renowned conductor Joel Revzen kept Strauss' huge forces playing together in perfect coordination and, with seeming ease, his players produced the unusual sonorities that make this opera especially enchanting. His rhythms were always piquant and the tension never loosened. Revzen held the audience in the palm of his hand from the moment the curtain rose on the dark stage to the final orchestral thrusts as Salome dies under the crush of shields.

Molly Fillmore in the title role of Richard Strauss' 'Salome' at Arizona Opera. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller
Molly Fillmore in the title role of Richard Strauss' 'Salome' at Arizona Opera. Photo © 2009 Tim Fuller

This weekend in Tucson produced two magnificent performances and they will not soon be forgotten. The same two casts will perform in Phoenix this coming weekend, 20-22 of November 2009.

Copyright © 19 November 2009 Maria Nockin,
Arizona USA

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ARIZONA OPERA

RICHARD STRAUSS

TUCSON

ARIZONA

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

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