by David Salazar
Over the course of two uninterrupted hours, Strauss’ “Salome” must develop from a clueless ingénue to a passionate seductress that eventually ends up a murderous, lustful lunatic. It is the dream role for any actress, but also one that demands a grade-A star to dispatch all of its nuance and intense passions.
Patricia Racette was not supposed to be the one tasked with carrying the Met’s “Salome” this season. That assignment had originally fallen on Catherine Nagelstad, who withdrew weeks before the opening night. So Racette, who sang the role earlier this year, stepped in for her Met role debut this past Monday. On Friday, Dec. 9, she dominated the stage in one of her greatest achievements on the Met stage.
A Well-Defined Character Arc
Her Salome is every bit the “innocent” unknowing girl at the start of the opera as her delicate voice questions why King Herod has been staring at her so insistently. She wandered about the stage until hearing the voice of Jochanaan (Željko Lučić). At that point, Racette’s voice took on a thicker complexion, the vibrato, which was nearly non-existent in opening passages, gaining momentum as Salome’s passion rose.
Her lustful passion flowered through the ensuing scene with Lučić, the confusion over her desires and the rejection potently portrayed. In one moment, she was attempting her best to seduce him, moving suggestively toward him, her voice delicate. But upon being spurned, there would be more pointed accents in the vocal phrases, her glare penetrating even from across the stage.
By then she was no longer the “innocent” girl from the start and as she sat atop a scaffold over Jochanaan’s cell, she turned her back to the audience and expressed her pensive state with very still body language. When Herodes (Gerhard Siegel) did his utmost to seduce her, Racette showed another facet of the character, this time a playful indifference that created great friction with Siegel’s more invasive approach.
And then Racette really turned up her sensual nature throughout the famed “Dance of the Seven Veils,” displaying a fearlessness in every aspect of the dance. As it climaxed, she stared right at Herodes and stripped herself completely naked, a moment that created audible astonishment throughout the Met audience.
Of course, the moment every connoisseur of the opera awaits is the final scene in which Salome finally receives Jochannan’s head on a silver platter and obsesses about having it in her power and yet wanting more. The soprano is tasked with blasting her voice over a titanic orchestral sound, which Racette had no qualms about doing, pushing her vocal resources to their intense limit. Hers was a ferocious interpretation, cajoling the head in some moments and then looking like she was ready to tear it apart like an animal. At one point, her voice dipped into its lower register, all the brightness sucked out for a deadly vocal phrase filled with resentment.
Gerhard Siegel Matches Racette’s Dramatic Nuance
Siegel was fascinating as Herodes, giving the Tetrarch a complex arc in his own right. We hear about the King long before he is on stage, anticipating his lecherous nature. Siegel did not disappoint in this respect, though he made Herodes far from a potent looking king. He slipped on the floor in a moment of wondrous believability and pouted in other moments as he demanded why Salome had left his party despite his wishes. When he came around to winning over Salome, he climbed up on the scaffolding, his stare full of insatiable desire. His singing oozed desire with emphatic diction and swelling phrases. Yet for all his attempts, his Herodes came off rather weak-willed, making for interesting drama when the King finally does his best to protest Salome’s wish for Jochanaan’s head.
One aspect of Strauss’ work that is often overlooked is the King’s own religious fervor. He is hanging out with the Jewish High Priests and repeatedly mentions that he feels a menace coming toward him. He imagines crows hovering over his gardening (an image that Jürgen Flimm’s production portrays late in the work). Strauss portrays these beautiful with the strings emulating the entrancing wind. Herodes own fears drive his protection of Jochanaan and Siegel’s errant rambling about the stage throughout this passage, his voice growing in intensity as he offered up jewels, gems and half his kingdom to his stubborn step-daughter. If ever a King was dethroned onstage, Siegel’s performance was it.
Nancy Fabiola Herrera Leads Solid Supporting Cast
As his wife Herodias was mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera, celebrating her 11th year at the Met. Hers was a frustrated Queen, her catty nature giving a very naturalistic quality to the onstage bickering between husband and wife. Watching her and Siegel battle was akin to watching a couple in the autumn of their marriage trying to find a way to get along and then realizing that one-upping each other was more fulfilling. Her voice boomed at the emphatic passages Strauss litters throughout the opera for her, the potency of the voice perhaps more suited to taking down the behemoth orchestra than anyone else in the cast.
As Jochanaan, Lučić showed vocal and physical restraint, imbuing the prophet with a sense of dignity. Kang Wang sang with elegance and fervor as the young Narraboth.
In the pit, Johannes Debus managed to bring out lush and powerful sound from the Metropolitan Orchestra, the waves of music so potent that they even threatened to drown out the singers at times. Arguably the most memorable moment of the evening from the orchestra came in the tense moments where Jochanaan is beheaded. Over a light tremolo, we hear sharp intermittent attacks from the basses, piercing sounds that are as dangerous-sounding as the action unfolding offstage.
Flimm’s Production a Subtle Updating With Unique Insights
Flimm’s production updates the action to what looks like the 1920’s. The stage is divided in half with stage right featuring a luxurious patio from Herodes’ palace while stage left showcases the desert and the well where Jochanaan’s cell lies deep underground. The divide seems to suggest the social divide that is represented by the wealthy king and the poor prophet. It also emphasizes the two men that come to dominate Salome’s psyche and drive her to madness. She is a wealthy princess, used to having anything she desires and yet she rejects the man that represents all of this in favor of a desperate passion for a man who rejects everything that she is. Salome’s wardrobe also expresses her descent into madness. When we first see her, she sports a silver dress hinting at her luxury as well as her “innocence.” But by the end, she is wearing a black robe that not only emphasizes her darkness but also draws her closer to the wardrobe one might anticipate from the poor prophet Jochanaan.
Racette still has four more performances in the title role of Strauss’ early gem and it is highly recommended that anyone in the mood for an intense passionate night of great operatic singing, and especially acting, should make sure to catch one performance before the run is up.