Salome: The Old Gal’s Still Got It at Houston Symphony

A disturbing plot that packs in audiences.
A disturbing plot that packs in audiences. Photo by Houston Symphony

For its mini-Richard Strauss festival, Houston Symphony has bracketed the three-program presentation with his first great operatic masterpiece, Salome, performed in concert staging.

Branded as cacophonous, noxious, brutal, and unfit for delicate sensibilities, the opera caused a scandal at its 1905 premiere, was later canceled at the august Metropolitan Opera House during its 1907 American premiere after a special performance, was banned in Vienna and London, until its notoriety and invaluable impact at packing houses turned the tide. Salome has never been out of the international rep. It packs a wallop with its shocking story adapted from Oscar Wilde’s 1891 shocking play.

At the height of his prowess in orchestration and color, Strauss turned Wilde’s overly-ripe prose into stunning virtuosity. The orchestra is as mammoth as Wagner’s at his best, and it glistens, growls, crashes, purrs, and crescendos with hall-rattling intensity. Gossamer and volcanic, sometimes in the same musical phrase, the opera bashes us by its very lushness and post-romanticism. Stravinsky didn’t usher in modern music with his ballet scores for Firebird and Rite of Spring, Strauss did it a decade earlier.

The psycho virgin princess of Judea, who becomes obsessed by the imprisoned John the Baptist, becomes ever more neurotic in her fatal fascination for the prophet. Seeing him, she eroticizes his eyes, his body, his hair, his mouth. She desires to kiss him. Repulsed by this daughter of Babylon, he retreats to his prison to continue his denunciations of her and her family, preaching the coming of Him who will rid the world of such filth. This rejection only turns her on. She will have him. When her libidinous step-father lusts after her, she seizes her chance.

Asked to dance for the lusty tetrarch, she makes him swear to give her whatever she asks. Practically salivating, he agrees. Then proceeds the percussion-laced famous “Dance of the Seven Veils,” a concert crowd-pleaser ever since the work’s premiere. When she has shed her costume, the feverish Herod asks what she wants.

Calmly, she replies, Give me the head of John the Baptist. On a silver charger, no less. Panicked that by killing such a man of God he will face eternal damnation, he frantically offers his step-daughter a litany of fabled treasures: peacocks, half his kingdom, precious gems such as amethyst and chalcedony, the veil from the Temple’s Holy of Holies. Salome is implacable. Give me the head, she repeats, refusing each rich temptation. Overwhelmed by her demented insistence, the rebuffed and defeated Herod gives her what she wants.

As the executioner descends into the cistern, Strauss raises the tension by an eerie silence of skittering high strings and twitching double basses. It’s a remarkable sequence, climaxed by a cataclysmic dissonant outpouring as the head is brought on. Pushed into a sexual paroxysm that hurls her over the edge of sanity, she embraces the severed head in one of opera’s greatest set pieces. Her wish comes true. She kisses the dead lips as clouds obscure the scene. Horrified, Herod orders her murder. As the soldiers crush her under their shields, the opera ends with three brutal and loud staccato chords.

I haven’t heard an orchestra more focused, nuanced, and savage as is the Houston Symphony under maestro Jurac Valčuha, the symphony’s music director. This is a Salome for the ages. For the orchestra, that is.

The singers were very good, but Strauss demands great ones. Dramatic soprano Jennifer Holloway easily cut through Strauss’s opulent orientalism, but her upper range tended to turn somewhat harsh. There’s no silk or cream to her impressive trumpet. To be fair, Salome is a killer role, and not many singers can convince as a smutty teenage femme fatale, and her costume of bejeweled bustier and a skirt of veils made her look like a matron from some Judean River Oaks neighborhood. She wasn’t helped by the clunky staging of her famous Dance, where she pranced around Herod, tying his wrists with the veils and leading him like a beast on all fours. Where was the sexy taunting? She doesn’t remove enough veils to make a dent in the peel-off costume. This bus-and-truck non-striptease couldn’t rouse anyone.

Baritone Mark S. Doss, as Jochanaan, a.k.a. John the Baptist, possesses a warm, chasm-deep voice. Unfortunately, he was placed far upstage, behind the large orchestra, and we struggled to hear him in his full glory when he pounds out his pronouncements against the House of Herod. When he moved down to the footlights during his dialogue with Salome, he was most effective. (At least his severed head looked exactly like him. For a performance of Salome at Milan’s La Scala, the prop department made a mold of his head, dreadlocks and all. They didn’t need it again and gave it to him. Wherever he sings Jochanaan, along comes his head.)

Tenor John Daszak, as Herod, was most impressive as he lusted after his step-daughter, panting and sexed-up, browbeating his steel-spined wife Herodias, mezzo Linda Watson (equally impressive as the ultimate Biblical stage mother), or frantic as he attempts to talk Salome out of her decadent desire. Tenor Issachah Savage, as smitten commander Narraboth, in love with Salome, has a clear, clean, ardent sound, perfect for this character role.

The large cast was ably handled by mezzo Hannah Ludwig (Page); tenor Bille Bruley, tenor Rafael Maras, tenor Marc Molomot, tenor Christopher Bozeka, and bass-baritone Joseph Barron, (the Five Jews, always debating religious tenets); tenor Matthew Anchel and bass Andrew Potter (Soldiers); richly-voiced bass Daniel Scofield and baritone Navasard Hakobyan (Nazarenes); and soprano Meryl Dominguez (Slave).

Creative Designer Adam Larsen has overlain the orchestra space at Jones Hall with a spangly whoosh of lava-like layers, leaving room on the upstage wall for a ripped section onto which are projected the moon – an important character all her own; a live video feed of Jochanaan in his cell, although shown horizontally as if he were lying down – either a mistake or a bizarre design choice; and not much else. It’s an idea that is vastly underused.

More is made of a broad brush of nebulous colored forms, from lighting designer Jim French, I think, that swim and pulsate over the walls and into the house. When Herod enters the opera, anachronistic Corinthian columns and the walls of a palace are projected on the hall’s right and left sides. This is a grand effect even with the completely wrong architectural style, but it sets a mood of faded opulence, a Baroque palazzo gone to seed. Molly Irelan’s costumes are effective and pleasing to look at, except for Salome’s Brünnhilde breastplate bustier. The actors move through the orchestra when needed to, which is smooth enough pacing, going onto platforms or upstage walkways or just arrayed at the footlights, like any proficient concert staging.

This is evergreen Strauss. One could stage Salome on a bare stage and this opera would still blaze and astound. The Festival is blessed by the best of the best: the artists of the Houston Symphony under Valčuha. They breathe life into Strauss. Salome is still the youngest gal in town.

Salome. has one performance remaining at 7 p.m. Sunday, June 9. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For more information, call 713-224-7575 or visit houstonsymphony,org. $34 to $125.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover