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Opera Review: Death From Above

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The Philadelphia Orchestra and Opera Philadelphia team up for Salome.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Opera Review: Death From Above

Depravity: Salome (Camilla Nylund) with the head of Jokanaan (Alan Held)
at the climax of Salome at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.
Photo by  Dominic M. Mercier © 2014 Opera Philadelphia/The Philadelphia Orchestra

In a year celebrating the 150th birthday of Richard Strauss, the most exciting concert event of the spring season was the premiere last night of Salome in Philadelphia. Strauss' opera was presented in a new semi-stage production by Kevin Newbury. This was a first-time collaboration between Opera Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Orchestra's music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. With an imaginative staging and an all-star cast, this was a riveting performance that explored this blood-drenched opera in great and sometimes uncomfortable depths.
With a glittering crown upon her head and a glowing, finely burnished instrument, soprano Camilla Nylund sang the title role with guts, color and flexibility. From her first, coy phrases this was a prepared, carefully paced performance, opening out into a narrow but pleasing upper register as she expressed her twisted attraction for the chained prophet. Literally jerking his chains, she moved, kohl-blacked eyes wide and mad, soaring up for the higher notes and hitting them with a smooth transition into the upper register of her voice.
The Dance of the Seven Veils was just that: a dance, not an exaggerated strip-tease. (In fact, most of Ms. Nylund's clothes stayed on!) The soprano opted for odd, clumsy choreography, a 16-year-old's flailing attempt of "erotic" teasing which made Herod's reaction even more questionable. When she finally demanded Jokanaan's head, Ms. Nylund opened the full power of her instrument, rising up with powerful (not piercing) high notes and diving down into that elusive (but necessary) lower range with the aid of a strong core. Her three-stanza address to the bloody head rode over the huge orchestra at the climax of a riveting and star-making performance.
Alan Held provided sonorous tones and wide-eyed mania as Jokanaan; a worthy and implacable figure in the midst of Herod's depraved court. The bass-baritone dominated the action from his first utterance, helped by the fact that the cistern in this stage design makes the prophet visible through most of the show. His long dialog with Salome was the thrilling highlight of the opera's first half, crackling with tension as the confrontation grew in intensity. He did the opera in manacles, fighting against his captors the entire way.
At the opposite end of the scale was tenor John Mac Master, whose intelligent singing and fearless navigation of the upper registers of his voice made Herod a comic and yet pathetic figure. There was nothing cartoonish about this Tetrarch, a picture of luxuriant madness haunted by genuine doubts about whether the Baptist should die. He was matched by towering mezzo-soprano Birgit Remmert as Herodias, whose Brunnhilde-sized instrument rode roughshod over the character's thorny orchestral accompaniment. Tenor Andrew Staples was an accomplished sweet-toned Narraboth, and Keith Miller was a welcome bit of luxury casting in the key role of the First Soldier.
Mr. Newbury placed the action on a specially constructed acting terrace above the stage in Verizon Hall. The design (by Vita Tzyukun) featured a vertical ladder that led down to the stage itself. A black scrim formed the walls of Jokanaan's cistern. The seating ranks (below the organ) were used for minor cast members (the Solders, the Nazarenes, the five Jews) to move in and out of the action as needed. Above the orchestra, large, illuminated silver spheres (a representation of the libretto's moon imagery?) moved up and down at times in the dim, shifting light. At the work's climax, the representation of Mr. Held's head was uncomfortably accurate and realistic.
Mr. Nézet-Séguin's considerable skill set as an opera conductor did this amazing score justice in what can only be described as a triumph for both conductor and players. From the first run of the clarinet, the virtuosos of the Philadelphia Orchestra were in the thick of the action. Gleefully, they opened Strauss' box of toys, finding a wide range of expressive colors for this enormous orchestral force. Notable tints included the utterances of the small squad of meandering low woodwinds (heckelphone, bassoons, bass clarinet) that comment on the action and the tiers of rising horns, trumpets and trombones that accompany Jokanaan's prophecies.
Certain moments (the "sawing" of the basses that announces the removal of the head, Herod slipping on Narraboth's life's-blood) had a sickening intensity. The theological squabble (between the Jews and Nazarenes) played as a kind of intermezzo, with a light, frothy texture. The Seven Veils had a curious restraint before erupting in savage power. The appearance of the severed head shook the room with huge slabs of brass and percussion, creating genuine terror and dread for all witnessing this spectacle. Ms. Nylund's final, swelling climax (where Strauss finally relieves ninety-five minutes of built-up chromatic pressure and ends the opera quickly) had the heat and intensity of a young woman's final flowering into maturity, followed by the brutal chords that indicated her quick and ugly death.

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