Like the 1891 Oscar Wilde play on which it is based, Richard Strauss's 1905 opera Salome has been a source of controversy from the very beginning. Wilde's play was banned in England before it could be publicly performed. The opera, despite the stern disapproval of Kaiser Wilhelm II, encountered fewer obstacles, but was often condemned for its perceived immorality.At the world premiere in Dresden soprano Marie Wittich refused to perform the "Dance of the Seven Veils", because she was " a decent woman". In a letter to Strauss, the dramatist Romain Rolland attacked the opera's "nauseous and sickly atmosphere" and its cast of "unwholesome, unclean, hysterical or alcoholic beings, stinking of sophisticated and perfumed corruption". In New York, the first production by the Metropolitan Opera closed after one night due to public outcry.
All of which raises the question: over a century later, does this remarkably intense opera still have the ability to shock and disturb? You mileage may vary, but after seeing Opera Theatre's production I'd say the answer is yes. In spades.
Granted, the "Dance of the Seven Veils", while certainly steamy enough to make dramatic sense, was somewhat less overtly sexual than it might have been. And the long confrontation between Salome and Jokanaan (John the Baptist) - in which the former tries every trick in her repertoire to seduce the latter - suffered from director Seán Curran's rather static staging - a bit of surprise, given Curran's background as a choreographer.
Those and a few other minor quibbles aside, however, this production of Salome is one of the most compelling and disturbing things you'll ever see on stage. Strauss's score is a remarkable combination of the conventional (for Jokanaan) and wildly adventurous that manages to be both technically complex and dramatically on target. The libretto it supports is compact and intense, unfolding in a single act of around 75 minutes. And Salome's final monologue, in which she caresses and finally kisses the severed head of Jokanaan, remains one of the most grotesque and unsettling scenes in opera.
The role of Salome is easily one of the most demanding in the repertoire. It calls for the stamina and range of a dramatic soprano but contains brief passages that drop down into alto territory. It requires an actress who can make the character's sexual obsession believable. And it demands the body and movement skills of a dancer. That's a combination of talents rare enough to oblige some companies to use a body double for the dance sequence.
Happily, Opera Theatre has Kelly Kaduce. If you've seen any of her previous OTSL triumphs - from her 2004 debut in Sister Angelica to last season's Madame Butterfly - you already know she has the vocal and acting chops for the role. Her Salome is a woman driven to self-destruction by a fixation on the unattainable. It's a completely compelling and utterly apt performance. And while she may not be a strong dancer, Mr. Curran has wisely given her choreography that, while not technically demanding, convincingly conveys an impression of single-minded sensuality.
Ms. Kaduce has a strong supporting cast. Jokanaan isn't called upon by either the libretto or the music to do anything very demanding - Strauss, in fact, is said to have found the character boring - but baritone Gregory Dahl does it all quite well, and with impeccable elocution.
Tenor Michael Hayes is a fine Herod, never allowing the role's collection of neurotic obsessions to deteriorate into the comedy you might get from a less skilled performance. As a result, the opera's one bit of actual comic relief - the quintet of Jews arguing endlessly about the nature of God - is that much more effective. Joshua Kohl, Joshua Lindsay, Zach Borichevsky, Brian Arreola and Andrew Harris get the credit for that.
Mezzo Maria T. Zifchak is appropriately haughty and caustic as Herodias and tenor Eric Margiore rounds out the solid lineup of principals as Narraboth, a moth who self-immolates when he gets too close to Salome's sexual flame.
Bruno Schwengl's set is a stark, forced-perspective box that draws the eye to Jokanaan's cistern - placed, somewhat improbably, on the upstage wall rather than on the floor. It is, perhaps, a bit too stark. Once Jokanaan has been brought on stage, the lack of any levels or set pieces means that there's not much for him to do but lumber around while Salome tries to seduce him. That scene aside, Seán Curran's direction is fluid and his choreography very effective. Paul Palazzo's lighting is striking but often leaves performer's faces in shadow.
Down in the pit, the expanded Opera Theatre orchestra performed the demanding and complex score with great skill under Stephen Lord's experienced baton. It's not the mammoth ensemble Strauss had in mind - there's only so much room down there, after all - but it sounded great.
Because it is so demanding, performances of Salome are not exactly commonplace, so this production would be worth seeing even if it were not a strong one. But it is, which moves it from the category of "worth seeing'' up to "essential". Be warned, however, that it's still pretty strong stuff, even in our present era of sex and violence-drenched media.
Salome runs in rotating repertory with three other operas through June 28th at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 135 Edgar Road in Webster Groves. For ticket information call the Opera Theatre box office at 314-961-0644.