Portland/Seattle Operas: A Tale of Two “Salomes”

Kelly Cae Hogan as Salome, Alan Woodrow as Herod, Rosalind Plowright as Herodias in Portland Opera's "Salome" © Cory Weaver / Portland Opera

Kelly Cae Hogan as Salome, Alan Woodrow as Herod,
Rosalind Plowright as Herodias in Portland Opera’s “Salome” © Cory Weaver /
Portland Opera

by MARIA CHOBAN

It was the best of crimes, March 1986, Seattle, sitting in the car with my friend having just witnessed Richard Strauss’s double-murder opera “Salome,” both of us so stunned by the brutal experience we sat in silence for a long time, me shaking due to the shock or cold, it doesn’t matter which.

It was the worst of crimes, last Friday in Portland’s Keller Auditorium, my companion turning to me at the finale of “Salome” and shrugging “I don’t see what all the fuss is about.” I knew it was coming within the first two minutes of the title character’s entrance, having absorbed the blow of a boring, incomprehensibly acted Salome. But the crime was the betrayal I felt because the bloodiest of the sexually bloody, what I took for granted as a bullet-proof opera, was neutered by what I initially chalked up to bad acting, eliciting from my companion not my anger at a trashed production but something much much worse: indifference.

WHAT THE HELL???? What went wrong?

This is a tale of two interpretations. It is also a tale of how I make mistakes when I forget that interpretation matters. I become annoyed when lazy performers default to just barely getting the notes on the page, the unschooled believe following the literal score will in itself unlock the spirit of the piece, and composers defer to their egos. BUT, I naively took for granted that composer Richard Strauss’ 1905 opera “Salome” was a work of genius, not even imagining it was possible to dampen much less snuff its sexy, gory sexual perversity. . . until I saw Portland Opera’s bloodless production Friday night.

Sex-mad in Seattle

I left the Seattle Opera House nearly 20 years ago reeling from the assault of a “Salome” so seamlessly directed that I thought that the actress who played her WAS this personality type. Salome, the 16 year old step-daughter of the smitten Herod, is a nympho (the apple didn’t fall far according to John the Baptist’s lines) who today we might categorize as “into blood-sports.” As played in Seattle by actresses/divas Josephine Barstow or Jane Mengedoht (I can’t remember which night I attended), Salome ruthlessly triangulates among her mother, Herodia (acted and sung with fetching upper-crust-ness by Rosalind Plowright in Portland’s production on Friday night), her stepfather, Herod and herself with spoiled self-assurance, balanced with high-wire tightrope walking in this sensitive area between daughter, lover, adversary, trying to negotiate her safe future at a time when a young woman’s fate WAS worse than death.

Sonja Frisell directed the Seattle production and one scene stands out in my memory: Salome standing before Herod at the end of her dance, stark naked, like a Greek statue, right hip slightly cocked, left knee slightly bent and coyly caressing the right, arms slightly raised and extended at an angle outward toward Herod, obliquely. NOT campy, NOT like a spoiled little 16-year-old suburbanite princess in today’s world, but rock solid and in full control of her sexual power.

I’ve seen 16-year-olds who were THAT Salome. I remember a beloved high school English teacher with whom I was walking to class approached by one of these now days jailbait types, turning to me as she sashayed off, rolling his eyes in bemused disgust. “Fucking Lolitas!” he muttered under his breath. They do exist and they are so sexually powerful that I understand why people succumb, and they do NOT act like what I saw on the Portland Opera stage from Kelly Cae Hogan Friday night. At a party the next night, Saturday, a gentlemen pressed me on my thoughts about “Salome” and I seethed “I wouldn’t fuck her with YOUR dick!”

The first thing missing in Portland was sex, like in the way Elina Garanca portrayed a fantastically sexual and sexy title character in the 2009 Metropolitan Opera production of “Carmen.” Not only did she sell the part, but her tightly choreographed performance was obviously directed by someone who had a clear vision of Carmen’s motivation and lust.

To portray Salome, however, a singer has to go several steps further. She has to have a taste not just for sex, but also for blood. “Ah ! you would not suffer me to kiss your mouth, Jokanaan,” she virulently spits at the evangelist’s decapitated head. “Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss your mouth, Jokanaan.”

What I love about Sonja Frisell, an acclaimed British theater and opera director, is how she’s willing to dive into the psychology of the work, the times, the authors, composers, THE CHARACTERS, working hardest to get her actors/singers to internalize and become her vision of these characters. This clip begins with Frisell discussing a particular role, but it encapsulates her general philosophy, and you see the results immediately following when a young Eteri Lamoris applies Frisell’s direction in “La Traviata.”

With Salome (as fleshed out by Oscar Wilde), Frisell deals with an outlier character closer to horror or noir genres than romantic tragedies. In addition to the vagaries of her uncertain future in this complicated household — where father is a buffoon in charge of the world, mother is nearing her shelf date and daughter is nearing becoming her mother’s replacement on that shelf — she must also battle adolescent hormones. To Salome, an ascetic monomaniacal prophet who disses her mother becomes an aphrodisiac, merely by refusing to succumb to the young woman’s advances. So far, so normal.

But the intensity of Salome’s need/lust and her orgasmic catharsis when it is finally satiated is far more intense than normal. And this is what Frisell was able to explore and make her divas get across to me so powerfully that I shook while experiencing it. I was not left idly pondering about the minutiae of how one masturbates in the position Steven Lawless put Kelly Cae Hogan — obviously bored already that early on. I was, instead, totally mesmerized by Frisell’s direction, a pose emulating a Greek statue at the end of a seductive dance, the power of reason over wanton caricature, of a dominatrix on a chessboard.

Passionless in Portland

In the Portland production, on the other hand, I got the feeling (or should I say NO feeling) that the most the director Steven Lawless could muster was a weak caricature of a spoiled suburban princess type. I suppose Herod, who could have anyone, might be attracted to this Salome if he was drunk enough, but really, why?? The famous Dance of the Seven Veils choreographed with seven hooded veiled dancers came across as a herd of Cousin Its on stage.

The two productions of “Salome” I experienced shared one very positive component: Brilliantly realized orchestral score by Stefan Minde with Seattle’s opera orchestra and George Manahan with Portland’s. Unfortunately, in opera, even a passionate musical realization and performance of a great score isn’t enough.

As an interpreter, I’ve long known that the score is only a skeleton; I left Wonderland the hard way in such meticulous but boring performances as my beloved Paul Dukas piano sonata performed by the technically flawless Marc Andre Hamelin, realizing that even with every marking rigorously observed, only a committed, passionate performance can bring the score to life for an audience, to make an audience tremble with catharsis the way I did after the Seattle production of “Salome.”

There, Frisell was not afraid to tackle a multi-dimensional Salome, a character trapped in an incestuous potentially deadly three-way, playing her mother against her step-father, a blood lust worthy of Quentin Tarantino. But what made her production shattering is that I could identify with Salome, perhaps because Frisell worked hard to make her actors express the subtlety and reality of their characters’ emotions. Her triangulation: Who hasn’t been immersed in a terribly uncomfortable triangle? Her blood lust: Who hasn’t wanted to kill their lover? It didn’t feel didactic or comic-bookish. It felt like “there but for the grace of God . . . .”

I wanted everyone in the Portland audience, including my companion, to have that Seattle experience: shaking in the car afterward. I wanted to experience the twisted magic that I felt in the Seattle production. I wanted to be seduced by Salome. I wanted to BE the Salome I experienced in Seattle.

It didn’t happen for me or for my companion, although the Portland audience mostly stood up for the ovation at the end (but then, don’t they always?). It felt as though director Stephen Lawless, maybe in trying to sympathize with Salome, shied away from the wild emotions —lust, anger — this ferocious teenager (like any adolescent) must be feeling to fuel her extreme actions.

A “Salome” that doesn’t give me sex and blood lust is a betrayal of Strauss, of “Salome,” of the audience — ME! Oh, I did experience homicidal rage, but those feelings toward Friday’s production of “Salome” were NOT cathartic. Rather, they made me want to show them how a really spurned (arts) lover would react. And I wouldn’t need Herod to do my killing for me!

OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch, Maria Choban, is a Portland pianist.
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2 Responses.

  1. Jeff Winslow says:

    As for what all the fuss is about, I’d think even a concert performance of the music, along with the realization it was presented in 1905, would be enough. And, though the performance seemed slightly rushed overall to me, and the orgasmic orchestral climax just after Salome’s final note was disappointingly buried under rolling tympani (from the front of the balcony), I agree the orchestra acquitted themselves well in this difficult score.

    But I also have to agree, especially after I played them up in the preview, that the production wimped out on the sex and violence. I’ll never think about the innovation of the seven dancers appearing during the Dance of the Seven Veils the same way again after that Cousin Itt crack, but the hide-and-seek choreography up to that point was intriguing, and I was willing to go along with the gold-spangled seven for sheer visual delight, provided they did eventually cut to the chase. Unfortunately they did not. Alan Woodrow as Herod did everything humanly possible to show his delight at finally uncovering the real Salome, but it’s very hard to imagine any lustful modern-day king being moved to cry out “Ah! Herrlich!” at the sight of her still clothed in an old sheet.

    Even weaker was the almost comically surreal attempt at the violence of Salome’s death. Nobody ever died from being pelted by shredded magazines. I’m still not sure whether we were supposed to believe that she died under a further collapse of the roof or a rain of boulders from the heavens, but it doesn’t matter because, after the initial split-second surprise wore off, it was much more of a head-scratcher than Salome-crusher. They would have been better off to have the soldiers rush in, as Strauss calls for, and while ancient shields would indeed have made no sense, why not the butts of those rifles they seemed to enjoy waving around so much earlier in the opera (even to the point of shooting each other if they’d ever had to use them)? Strategically located foam on each butt would prevent any accidental diva damage.

    (Speaking of things which made no sense, just whose arm was it that lifted the problematically still-covered silver platter out of the cistern after Jochanaan’s execution, anyway?)

    It’s frustrating, because the set was brilliant, all the major roles sang their difficult parts well (though Cogan’s tendency to bloom thickly when high and loud is not to my taste and fights the orchestra in harmonically complex passages), and they all clearly have the acting chops to create the kind of “Salome” that you crave, and that I too was hoping for. It seems director Lawless didn’t hold up his end of things.

    I would note in his defense, though, that Oscar Wilde was hardly an authority on teenage girls. I believe Wilde leaves the door open to an interpretation more akin to spoiled brat cum sociopath than a spectacular hormone-induced failure to negotiate an impending triangle. This seems to be what Lawless was aiming for, but as the music tells us nearly every minute of the opera, that’s still no excuse to dilute the sex and violence.

  2. bob priest says:

    want a writer/director who IS an authority on teenage girls?

    well, that fellow is roman polanski.

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