John the Baptist lost his head last night in Ruritania. That seems to me to be where director Daniel Slatter set Strauss’s sonic boom. I expected the Prisoner of Zenda to appear before Narraboth killed himself. All the men except the Baptist were dressed like they thought the show was written by a different Strauss – Johann not Richard. Even the five Jews and the the two Nazarenes were a riot of epaulets, gold braid, and medals. Jochanaan alone was in civvies, looked mad, tore up reams of paper, and was doubtless planning to assassinate Czar Alexander II.
There was a lot more silliness. Jochanaan was in a room (it appeared to be a decrepit office) larger than a two car garage. The rotating stage (this time the orchestra was so loud that the audience couldn’t hear it creak) turned to reveal this room and its mad occupant. Salome made herself comfortable in it and tried to work her wiles, but he was too busy scribbling to notice.
There was no Dance of the Seven Veils mainly because there were no dancing and no veils. Instead the big rectangle that had housed Jochanaan’s cistern-office opened and we saw a tableaux in which the Salome of about 10 years before watched Herod murder her father – his brother. Salome watched the trio and occasionally made a few obscure movements none of which could be called dancing.
When Salome asked for Jochanaan’s head and finally had her wish granted, there was no Naaman – the executioner. Instead the stage rotated to reveal Jochanaan dead in his two car garage office. His body was in a chair and his head was on a silver charger on his desk. As is virtually always the case with severed heads in show biz this one was not anatomically correct. Such heads have no necks as the muscles contract when released from their mooring. The Baptist’s stage head had a very noticeable neck.
Finally, when Herod ordered his soldiers to kill Salome she walked in to a small box containing her younger self. No soldiers, no dead Salome, just two living ones. This was another operatic staging that would be best audited from a seat behind a post. Alas, there are no obstructed views in the Santa Fe house. The production was not bad enough to allow for schadenfreude; it was just silly.
So how was the performance? Short answer, pretty good, but not outstanding. Of course the key role is Salome. Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda (shortened from Alexandrina Pendatchanska) has recently moved to heavier roles. Last season she assumed the title role in Fidelio with the Santa Fe company. I believe this run was her first attempt at Salome. She has the amplitude and vocal range necessary for Strauss’s terrible teenager, but her sound was sometimes a bit ragged. She looked good onstage, but her acting was rudimentary. Perhaps this was not her fault, but rather belonged to the silly stage business she was tied to.
The other key to any performance of Salome is the conductor and orchestra. Conductor David Robertson got as much from the fine Santa Fe Orchestra as was possible in a theater open on all sides. Not everything was audible. For example, when Herod offers Salome the Veil of the Holy of Holies the cries of the off stage Jews was completely lost.
Baas-baritone Ryan McKinny was the soon to be headless Jochanaan. His portrayal was more demented anarchist than God obsessed prophet, but it did have a core from which he could work. His voice is large and was easy to hear over Strauss’s tumultuous orchestra. His sound sometimes goes a little woolly, but on balance his was the best conceived and delivered impersonation of the evening.
Brian Jagde was fine as the self destructive Captain of the Guard Narraboth. He has a large voice and made as much as possible of his part as his chocolate soldier costume would allow. Robert Brubaker has a good voice, but had no idea as to how to play the oleaginous, semi-demented, degenerate Tetrarch Herod. This role is one of opera’s great character parts. If you wish to hear how it should be played listen to Gerhard Stolze on the Nilsson/Solti recording of this opera. Brubaker sang the notes, but was as bland as his uniform was gaudy.
Michaela Martens sang Herodias. She too offered little interpretive insight into her role, though she doesn’t have as much to do as Herod. The rest of the cast was fine. The religious dispute of the five Jews is one of opera’s most original conceptions and was performed with elan and clarity.
In summary, another goofy staging of an operatic staple. A good performance that deserved a better production.
Salome – Alex Penda
Herodias – Michaela Martens
Herod – Robert Brubaker
Jochanaan – Ryan McKinny
Narraboth – Brian Jagde
Conductor – David Robertson
Director – Daniel Slater
Scenic Designer – Leslie Travers
Costume Designer – Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer – Rick Fisher
Choreographer – Seán Curran