Produced by: West Bay Opera
Featuring: David Gustafson, Michelle Rice, Heather Green, Isaiah Musik-Ayala, Alonso Sicairos León, Veronica Jensen, Kiril Havezov, Lazo Mihajlovich, James Callon, Carmello Tringali, Jackson Beaman, Michael Mendelsohn, Lazo Mihajlovich, Chung-Wai Soong, Stephen Boisvert, Stephen Boisvert, Terry Hayes, Norma Arredondo, katherin Naegalee, Jack Carter
Conducted by: José Luis Moscovich
Directed by: Ragnar Conde
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
When: May 26 and 28, June 3 and 4, 2017
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Tickets: $40-$83 (discounts available). Call 650-424-9999 (preferred) or visit www.WBOpera.org.
is a feast for ears and eyes
pulls no punches in making a solid commentary
Watching the West Bay Opera production of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” is like standing on an seaside cliff, watching an ocean storm rage.
There are moments of relative calm in the Strauss score; but there are many more moments of powerful, overwhelming music and singing, pounding the audience with waves of sound. Frequently beautiful, magnificent music.
That bit of popping and cracking I think I heard in the audience may have been cellphone screens breaking like crystal goblets when soprano Heather Green delivered the power notes of Salome’s arias.
Really, children stand back! For your own safety!
With this production, WBO General Director and Conductor José Luis Moscovitch and Stage Director Ragnar Conde have launched a full-scale attack on today’s social and political madness, where arrogance and ignorance are more highly valued in too many circles than wisdom and education.
They’ve set this story of lust and insanity in a dystopian future, after nuclear war, in a bombed-out bunker.
We don’t meet him first, but tenor David Gustafson is brilliant and representative of this dystopian vision as King Herod, in his scorched polyester business suit, ragged dress shirt, unbalanced tie and a vain blond wig. There is nothing subtle about his lust for his stepdaughter Salome, nor in his crazed belief in his riches and power.
Besides having an excellent voice, Gustafson is the most fun to watch as he rushes around in his desperate attempts to possess Salome, and in his panicked hallucinations. His eyes bug out with lust and desperation.
As Salome, Green at times seems too wooden, as an actor, although that gives way over time to a brilliant display of Salome’s madness. We watch Salome gradually lose her mind, as we slowly realize she has been unhinged way before we took our seats in the theater. Green’s singing is terrific and powerful — toward the end of the opera, as she stands center stage and projects to the audience, the rafters were shaking. Amazing.
Mezzo-soprano Michelle Rice is a delight to watch as Herodias, wife of Herod and mother of Salome. She is the epitome of cynicism as she laughs at Herod and sneers at Iokanaan (in the program) or Jochanaan (in the supertitles) when he calls her incestuous and sinful. And, what pipes! She has a beautiful voice.
Bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala (both Iokanaan and Jochanaan in the program), in dreads and chains, is most fun to watch when his mad prophet’s eyes are kind of bugging out. His voice is excellent and powerful at all times.
Alonso Sicairos León was in excellent voice as Narraboth, captain of the guard, who foolishly lets Salome talk him into letting Jochanaan out of his cistern jail, still chained, in return for a promised smile.
Salome is smitten with the prophet Jochanaan, who continues to rail against her mother and her stepfather. Salome praises his ivory white skin, black hair and richly red lips. She begs to touch him, to kiss him, but he rejects her.
When Narraboth hears all that, he kills himself. When Herod enters the scene, he slips on Narraboth’s blood and maybe goes a little nuttier than he already had been.
Know the rest of the story? Herod keeps begging Salome to dine with him, to drink with him, and then finally begs her to dance for him. He promises her anything she wants, even half his kingdom, as Herodias snorts and objects in the background.
After that promise is fulfilled, and Salome has danced the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” baring her breasts for the drooling Herod, Salome, who’d been pouting because Jochanaan had rejected her, demands a silver platter — “Yes! She wants a silver platter,” says Herod — but, she says, with the head of Jochanaan on it.
Herod, singing desperately, tries to talk her out of it, but Salome, singing like the crazy person she is, demands the head, and eventually gets it. And then things get worse for everybody.
It is a powerful, one-act opera, delivered in an hour and 40 minutes. Strauss calls for a huge orchestra, but WBO managed with 35 players (a lot for WBO), split between the orchestra pit and a two-story construction on stage at stage left. As always under Maestro Moscovich’s baton, the orchestra delivered with excellence.
The set, by Peter Crompton, is dark and scary, easily setting the scene as a bombed bunker filled with ragged soldiers, Jews, Nazarenes and courtiers. There were projections, by Crompton and Frédéric O. Boulay, that helped imply a desperate feeling, but which I found slightly confusing. Especially when Jochanaan’s cistern was opened. I have no idea what we were seeing then.
Lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt was excellent, making the most of that terrific set. Giselle Lee’s sound design started with a little too much orchestra, but balanced out within a very few minutes to make it all work. It was pretty amazing, really, given the position of the violins in the pit and much of the horns and woodwinds on stage, to get such balanced sound.
Lisa Cross’s makeup and wigs were fabulous. I loved what she did with mezzo-soprano Veronica Jensen as The Page, making her look very much like Daryl Hannah as Pris in the 1982 film “Blade Runner.” It worked for this show. Also, Jensen was in beautiful voice.
And, hats off to Abra Berman, for her time-traveling mix of costume designs.
It’s a huge cast and a huge production team, and many, many people deserve praise.
The production’s weaknesses mostly had to do with an occasional lack of creativity regarding what to do with the cast during the times when Strauss’s score didn’t give them as much to do as would be expected in other forms of theater.
Strauss had his own tale to tell, through his music, and there are minutes here and there when we might have liked to see more going on with the cast while the music played. Oddly enough, that included the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which goes on for a very long time while Strauss noodles with musical ideas, and it was a challenge, we suspect, for choreographer Norma Arredondo to come up with enough fitting movements for Salome in that time.
Moscovich and Conde had planned this production before the current United States president took office, but have made clear that they feel his election has brought the scary future they present in this “Salome” all too close to actually happening.
The show is a coproduction with Conde’s Mexico City company, Escenia Ensamble. In his opening night remarks, Moscovich thanked the Mexican Secretariat of Culture for a grant that helped pay for the production, and noted that it was a better use of money than building a wall. That remark drew a round of applause. Then he thanked Mexico, in Spanish, which drew another round of applause.
Email John Orr at email@example.com