Girl meets boy. Boy ignores girl. Boy loses head. It’s the same old story since Salome danced from the pages of the Bible to the brushes of Titian, Moreau and Munch, to the pens of Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss, to a Rita Hayworth celluloid camp classic and to Broadway with Al Pacino as her lascivious stepfather.
Former superstar mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender now can claim superstardom as a director with her finest, most focused work to date. Fassbaender shows us the drama as Wilde’s purple poetry begins to filter through his brain.
No moonlit Judean terrace here: We’re in Wilde’s Victorian library and adjoining dining room where a banquet is breaking up. The poet stumbles from the table as thoughts begin to flow, and party guests and assorted hangers-on take voice. The Page who predicts “Evil may come of this!” is Wilde’s lover, Bosey Douglas. The Soldiers who comment on the ravings of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) are, well, soldiers, booted to the thigh and bare to the waist, fresh from an offstage orgy.
Wilde is brilliantly portrayed by dancer Martin Dvorak, who created his choreography under Fassbaender’s direction. Putting pen to paper is not enough for Wilde; he begins dancing to the sound of Jochanaan’s voice. Gradually, he assumes the identities of all of the characters, illuminating and guiding them, considering every word. When Salome asks “Is this prophet an old man?” she directs the question to Wilde rather than the smitten captain Narraboth. When Herod forgets what he wants his servants to bring, Wilde reminds him with a gentle whisper (we never find out).
Narraboth is rather a gloomy Gus, so to abet his lovesick suicide, Wilde flourishes a carving knife and Narraboth impales himself. With that bit done, we get to the meat of the evening: Jochanaan’s revilement of Salome, Herod’s failed seduction of his wife’s daughter, that infamous dance performed for any favor asked and the decapitation of Jochanaan to facilitate one last kiss.
There are moments of sly wit, too: Herodias can be seen drinking quite alone at the dining table until her entrance halfway through the opera (at one point she has a dinner napkin over her head); when five Jews have a cacophonous argument about who was the last person who saw God, Wilde covers his ears with his hands.
Fassbaender’s greatest coup de theatre is the infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Rather than remove her own clothing, Salome strips Wilde, dons each garment and then lets Herod take it from her. The freaky, sensuous pas de deux culminates in Wilde’s nudity. Wilde’s body doubles for the usual papier mache severed head of Jochanaan, and when Herod orders the necrophiliac’s death, it comes at her creator’s hands.
Liudmila Slepneva is a revelation as the homicidal princess. How can one so petite, so gorgeous, possess such a huge, perfectly produced dramatic soprano? Onstage for nearly the entire opera, she gives a tireless, mesmerizing perf, acing the notorious sustained high B-flats on the last pages.
Joachim Seipp paints Jochanaan’s prophecies with delicate lyricism alternating with high notes of Biblical proportion. A doddering fop as Herod, Dan Chamandy uses his suave, heroic tenor to sing the role rather than follow custom and shout it. Reveling in highest dudgeon, Shauna Elkin digs into Herodias like Cruella de Vil on absinthe. Marwan Shamiyeh makes a sweet-voiced, impassioned Narraboth.
The 30-year-old Aleksander Markovic coaxes wonders from his players, highlighting tiny details and never overpowering the singers (the orchestra numbers about 100). A brief, queasy passage from a contrabassoon almost made me physically ill, but I think that’s rather what Strauss intended.