Shocking Salome

When Richard Strauss's Salome premiered in 1905, it caused considerable scandal. Its sensuous nature was just too much for the audiences of the day. Over the years, though, the opera's impact has been muted as crowds have become more jaded. But in its new production directed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Houston Grand Opera has managed to bring some of the erotic shock value back. HGO's Salome is a reminder that high art, too, can startle an audience, and be the better for it. The opera is compelling, enthralling and, at times, even disturbing. But in the end, all that matters is that it's thoroughly entertaining.

At Friday night's premiere, internationally acclaimed soprano Hildegard Behrens was superb in the title role of the woman who wants John the Baptist's affection -- and if she can't get his affection, wants his head on a plate, literally. She sang magnificently, combining the mature voice essential for the part with a girlish quality that made her convincing as a teenage temptress. Equally as convincing was tenor Neil Rosenshein as Herod, Salome's lecherous stepfather. Rosenshein displayed excellent singing and acting in portraying the demented and neurotic Judean ruler.

Baritone Richard Paul Fink was also outstanding as the prophet Jokanaan (as John the Baptist is called here). Fink exhibited a powerful voice in his portrayal of a righteous man who's become a victim of the perverse machinations of Herod, his family and his court.

Also turning in excellent performances Friday were mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski as Herodias, Herod's jealous and scheming wife, and tenor John Horton Murray as a captain of the guard who's infatuated with Salome.

The story of the opera is familiar: Herod, obsessed with Salome, promises his stepdaughter anything if she will dance for him. Salome, who at first refuses, ultimately agrees to dance for Herod if he will give her the head of Jokanaan. Strauss gave the events a charge by basing his work not on the biblical source material, but on the play written by Oscar Wilde. Wilde's version of the New Testament account is highly eroticized, going so far as to introduce necrophilia into the plot.

Director Atom Egoyan has moved the setting of the opera from the sumptuous first-century palace of Herod in the Holy Land to a dingy and foreboding 20th-century building that bears a strong resemblance to a mental institution. Herod is surrounded by men in white coats and women in nurses' uniforms who supply him with drugs and alcohol, and otherwise cater to his every whim. In this scenario, it is perhaps best to imagine that the principal figures are asylum inmates who have deluded themselves into believing they are the biblical characters and are acting out their respective roles.

Shifting the time and place of an opera setting is risky business. Most of the time it doesn't work. However, in this case, it's highly effective. Stripping away the trappings of Herod's luxurious palace forces the audience to focus on the characters and their actions. Moreover, the dark and dingy setting emphasizes the perverse natures of Herod, Herodias and Salome.

The production also makes good use of a video screen in the background. This device is particularly useful in conveying sequences that normally take place off-stage. For example, in a scene where Jokanaan, who is confined to an underground cistern, castigates members of Herod's family for their numerous sins, the moving lips of the prophet are projected on the screen behind the actors. Such uses of the video screen are a powerful help in heightening the opera's impact.

About the only glitch at Friday's premiere came during Salome's famous dance of the seven veils. The dance was supposed to take place in silhouette behind a silken screen, which was spread across the stage. Unfortunately, the screen split. However, thanks to a little improvisation, the audience was able to see the sensuous end of the dance behind the screen, although maybe not quite as originally planned. It's testimony to how entrancing the opera is that the problem with the set detracted little from the overall performance; in fact, some in the audience might not have even been aware there was a problem.

The opera's most chilling moment takes place at the end, when Salome caresses and kisses the severed head of Jokanaan. The prop used to depict the head, delivered to Salome in a transparent bowl, is extremely realistic. The scene ends with Herod strangling Salome. Behrens and Rosenshein captured the emotion of the moment well, bringing the opera to a highly charged and disturbing conclusion, helped along by conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony, which offered a crisp interpretation of Strauss's sensuous score.

This innovative new production of Salome is obviously not for everyone. Some may find it too graphic, while others may object to its updated setting. Many, however, will find it spellbinding and extremely entertaining. Whatever the response, it won't be a shrug and a sense that you've seen this all before. And for that alone, HGO deserves commendation for mounting this bold new production.

Salome plays through February 7 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bruce Guynn