By Robert D. Thomas
Southern California News Group
Tomas Tomasson as John the Baptist and Patricia Racette as Salome in LA Opera’s historic production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” which opens tomorrow night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Ken Howard/LA Opera
The story is legendary in the opera world; even those who weren’t in attendance (as I was) remember it. 1986 — the inaugural opening night for Los Angeles Opera: the curtain rising on the opening act of Verdi’s Otello pauses partway up before continuing its ascent a few seconds later. It was a “heart-in-the-throat” moment for those in attendance (particularly for those in company management, one suspects). It also provided a ready-made, humorous lead for critics (including me), leaning forward in anticipation.
That opening production was an exciting time for all concerned, but fewer people remember the third opera in that inaugural season.
Otello was followed by a very conventional presentation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starring — somewhat implausibly — Leona Mitchell as Cio-Cio San.
However, it was the third offering — a new production of Richard Strauss’ Salome — that in retrospect, put the company on the international opera map. It’s also the only production from that original season that remains in the LAO repertoire, 31 years later. The Met still has Franco Zeferelli’s iconic Madama Butterfly in its rep; Sir Peter Hall’s Salome is LAO’s equivalent.
Tomorrow night LAO revives that Salome production in the first of six performances, running through March 19. The big news has been that superstar American soprano Patricia Racette is portraying the title heroine; both Michelle Mills in our SCNG papers (LINK) and Catherine Womack in the Los Angeles Times (LINK) have focused on that story.
Yet, it’s not too big a stretch to say that without that 1986 production of Salome, there might be no LA Opera (as the company now calls itself). Thus the historical aspect of this opera deserves to be remembered.
That seems strange in retrospect because Salome wasn’t an easy sell in a city where opera was still working to establish a beachhead.
For one thing, LAO’s production of Salome was created by Sir Peter Hall, who was far better known for his work in the theatre than in the opera world, although, with conductor Georg Solti, he did direct Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1983 at Bayreuth for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.
Second, the opera (written by Strauss at the beginning of the 20th century using a libretto that he adapted from an infamous Oscar Wilde play) runs in a single act that lasts an hour and 40 minutes without intermission — although for those who don’t like long nights at the opera house, that’s a plus.
Another issue is that the character originates in synoptic Biblical gospels of Matthew and Mark, although in those accounts she is unnamed. Wilde’s and Strauss’ “scandalous” treatment of a Biblical character always caused ruffled feathers among conservative Christian folk.
A final (and related) problem was the opera’s most famous moment: Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she writhes before Herod in an erotic dance and where each of the veils are removed until she stands naked before the king. The scene so scandalized the performers and audiences that in earlier productions a dancer performed, and, later, singers used a body stocking for the dance. Even today the nude scene features prominently in almost any article, include those noted above.
Sir Peter would make no offering to modesty, in part because the Salome in that 1986 production — his wife, Maria Ewing — was good looking and was willing to end the dance naked. In addition, the production was notable because the performers were both compelling as singers and actors. It was, particularly, a hard role for Ewing, who was a mezzo-soprano rather than a sopranos, but she carried off the singing handsomely and her acting was riveting.
One other aspect of that LAO Salome premiere was the size of the orchestra: 92 players (much larger than either of the first two offerings), bulging the Pavilion pit and led by Henry Lewis. Hearing this luscious score played this by the now top-flight LAO Orchestra, conducted by James Conlon, should be one of the prizes of this year’s production.
Reports are that Sir Peter’s production has been refurbished for this run — not surprising given that it has been lent to companies around the world (a nice money-maker for the company). Sir Peter (who reportedly suffers from dementia) will not be on hand, although he continues to be listed for his production. Instead, David Paul makes his company debut as director and Duane Schuler will handle the crucial lighting details.
Like all productions of Salome, there’s a great deal of complexity and intrigue that will surround this revival. But there is also a great deal of history, which should not be forgotten. The L.A. Times Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, Martin Bernheimer — not known for throwing around accolades lightly — wrote of that 1986 production: “This is what opera should be about.”
(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.