Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' production of Richard Strauss' Salome is the most mind-blowing piece of theater I've seen in all my years of reviewing opera for RFT. But then, it has always been thus with Salome. The combination of Strauss' revolutionary music, the salacious Oscar Wilde play that spawned it and its creators' reputations for excess drew the cream of Europe's highbrow culturati and avant-garde wannabes to the 1905 debut. That audience included legendary composers Giacomo Puccini, Gustav Mahler and lions of modern music like Arnold Schönberg and his student, Alban Berg. Even seventeen-year-old Adolf Hitler bummed fare from his family to attend.
They weren't disappointed. The cast took 38 curtain calls.
The principals here, particularly soprano Kelly Kaduce, do nearly as well. Kaduce, star of last season's Madame Butterfly, gives a knockout performance as the oversexed teenage daughter of Herod, ancient Judea's Roman ruler.
If OSTL's 2009 debut production, La Bohème, was perfect for those who are just dipping their toes into opera, Salome goes off the deep end. The opera is performed in one long act. Strauss' score, a relentless 90-minute tone poem, weaves 40 musical motifs into a sinuous, shifting platform for his singers. As Salome's rehearsal pianist, Curt Pajer, put it in a pre-show lecture, "We're doing an English translation of a German opera, from a play written in French, by an Irishman." It's no wonder parts of the libretto are awkward, and when combined with Strauss' labyrinthine music, very difficult to sing. Early on Kaduce wrestled these phrases to a standstill. But as the performance developed, she began brilliantly twisting them to her own uses.
As Salome, Kaduce must sing her character through a lot: teenage tantrums; the successful seduction of one of Herod's guards; the attempted seduction of John the Baptist; fending off her stepfather's incestuous advances and her stepmother's mean mouthed jealousy, followed by an athletically sensuous rendering of the notorious "Dance of the Seven Veils" that climaxes with a brief moment of total nudity. And all that is just the warm-up for a blood-drenched necrophilic tryst culminating with Kaduce in shuddering orgasm astride the severed head of John the Baptist. Through it all, her darkly luminous voice wrings every nugget out of the serpentine score.
Stephen Lord, OTSL's most refined conductor, has been entrusted with Salome. Strauss scored it for a monstrously excessive 118-piece orchestra. OTSL crams about half that many musicians into its tiny pit. Their sound is complex and deeply textured. With little rehearsal and nearly no elbow room, they illuminate this music.
The set, costumes, choreography and lighting combine postmodern and early-twentieth-century avant-garde styles. Bruno Schwengl's furnitureless, nearly prop-free set is a Rorschach of ever-changing color splashed on the rear half of the stage. This dexterous dark splotch eventually becomes an expanding vaginal canal from which John the Baptist (the German name, Jokanaan, is used in the libretto) dramatically emerges. Schwengl's simple costumes work in the first half of the opera but then unravel, as Herod's court arrives in a mélange of first-century Roman dress and modern formalwear. When Wilde's five arguing rabbis in prayer shawls and forelocks show up, it looks like a Hassidic toga party.
Stage director Sean Curran has spent much of his professional life as a choreographer, and it shows. At times the staging feels like a series of tableaux, arranged in strong lines and blocks, evoking the intensely stylized work of Diaghilev, Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham; this contributes to the production's pre-World War I, "high art" throwback feel.
Because there's little furniture and few props, Paul Palazzo's lighting plays a substantial role. Tersely drawn, sharply geometric rectangles and circles insinuate scene changes out of thin air. Dynamic but unintrusive light joins the choreography like an extra dancer.
Call Salome unique high art or call it an adults-only operatic freak show. Either way, it's well worth the time and money. And when you go, Pajer's pre-opera lecture, delivered an hour before each performance, is a must.
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