Strange but true: Richard Strauss' "Salome" has aged a lot better than Oscar Wilde's. Going on 100, this is one dame in no need of Botox. The score remains one of the most taut and tense in all of opera, an undulating tide of orchestral effects that flows inexorably to its shattering climax.

A correction was made to this review on Mar. 17, 2004.

Strange but true: Richard Strauss’ “Salome” has aged a lot better than Oscar Wilde’s. Going on 100, this is one dame in no need of Botox. The score remains one of the most taut and tense in all of opera, an undulating tide of orchestral effects that flows inexorably to its shattering climax. The Metropolitan Opera’s new production, starring an incandescent Karita Mattila, raised the roof on Monday night — and that roof ain’t so easy to raise.

Credit goes, first and foremost, to the prodigiously talented Mattila, one of the most exciting performers of her generation. Tackling the fierce demands of the title role for the first time at the Met, she handily surpassed even her finest performances here (last season’s Jenufa, for example — rather a different kind of girl), giving a performance of hypnotic intensity and thrilling vocal luster.

Happily, it was showcased in a sleek and assured new production from Jurgen Flimm, one of the company’s most accomplished in recent seasons. Flimm smoothly moves the pseudo-biblical tale to the 1930s, roughly, with no loss of sense or sensational effect. Wilde’s play is hardly a naturalistic depiction of a New Testament homily, after all; it’s a heady rhapsody on the irrational intoxications of sexual desire. Its themes are as timeless as the century-old score is ageless.

Santo Loquasto provided the glittering sets and costumes. The curtain rises on swells clad in tuxes and silk evening dresses, cavorting idly on a patio framed by a sweeping curve of red and gold tile that evokes the glistening style of Gustav Klimt. James F. Ingalls’ lighting flickers up from below, bathing the revelers in eerie light. At right, the deco lines of the patio meet stylized sand dunes, where sentries stand watch over the cistern from which Jochanaan — John the Baptist — fulminates against the corruptions of Herod’s court, igniting a perverse flame of lust in the heart of the 16-year-old princess.

This fatal flowering is rendered with precise psychological nuance by Mattila. Salome is first seen languidly dancing by herself, a champagne flute in one hand, a sandal in the other. She’s clad in moonlight-colored silk, cut on the bias, natch, but the movie-star looks — think Dietrich mixed with a touch of Harlow — are just the outward veneer of sophistication. Inside this shimmeringly pretty shell is a real teenager, immature, emotionally volatile, easily bored and looking for distraction wherever she can find it. Still looking girlish at 43, Mattila doesn’t just act girlishness — she inhabits it, both dramatically and vocally.

Mattila’s convincing innocence in the opera’s early moments adds to the horror — and the fascination — of her sudden descent into lust and vengeance. Salome’s teasing requests for a kiss from John the Baptist, playful at first, turn petulant and then desperate. The deadly combination of a child’s moral vacuousness and a woman’s awakening to the anguish of sexual desire cannot often have been as potently rendered as it is here.

Mattila’s vocal performance was no less accomplished. She brought a clear, light, playful sound to Salome’s flirtations, richer, darker colors to her seductive manipulation of Herod. Bursts of unrestrained power punctuated Salome’s descent into sexual hysteria. The famous final scene, in which Salome descends into an ecstasy of madness as she gets hot and heavy with that decapitated head, was marked by silken pianissimos piercing through bright, hot rages of silvery sound. The audience was rapt.

The supporting cast was excellent. Allan Glassman, a last-minute substitute for an ailing Siegfried Jerusalem, sang Herod with firm vigor, only occasionally finding himself overmatched by the upward-surging tides of the orchestra. Albert Dohmen boomed with the proper stentorian tone as Jochanaan. The clear-toned mezzo Larissa Diadkova was an amusingly disgusted Herodias. Valery Gergiev’s conducting kept a firm grasp on the score’s dramatic intensity, here and there at the expense of the more subtle atmospheric effects.

Even fine productions of “Salome” can turn instantly ludicrous when it comes time for the famous dance of the seven veils. This one didn’t. Doug Varone’s choreography borrowed freely from movie-star iconography — a little Marilyn here, a little Marlene there — and wisely didn’t overtax Mattila’s dancing abilities. As the orchestra rapped out the last strains of Strauss’ frenzied climax, Mattila flung off a last strip of black silk, revealing all. Complete wardrobe malfunction, you could call it.

Salome

Metropolitan Opera; 3,800 seats; $250 top

Production

A Metropolitan Opera presentation of the opera, with music by Richard Strauss, libretto adapted from the play by Oscar Wilde, translated by Hedwig Lachmann. Conductor, Valery Gergiev. Production, Jurgen Flimm.

Creative

Set and costumes, Santo Loquasto; lighting, James F. Ingalls; choreography, Doug Varone. Opened, reviewed March 15, 2004. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

Narraboth - Matthew Polenzani The Page - Katharine Goeldner First Soldier - Peter Volpe Second Soldier - Richard Bernstein Jochanaan - Albert Dohmen A Cappadocian - Andrew Gangestad Salome - Karita Mattila A Slave - Vanessa Cariddi Herod - Allan Glassman Herodias - Larissa Diadkova First Jew - Joel Sorenson Second Jew - Roy Cornelius Smith Third Jew - Adam Klein Fourth Jew - John Easterlin Fifth Jew - LeRoy Lehr Second Nazarene - Charles Edwin Taylor
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