The Metropolitan Opera's production of Salome, shown in cinemas under the Met HD program, had - for the most part - great singing and orchestration. And yet it didn't work. It failed on casting, lighting, direction, costumes, set design and above all, film direction. The result was a performance that lacked emotional punch. And emotional punch is what Salome is all about.
The story goes like this: Princess Salome lives in Judea at the time of Christ. Her mother the Queen is a famous decadent. Her mother's current husband, Salome's stepfather, lusts after Salome. One night during a party Salome wanders outside and discovers the pit where the prophet John the Baptist is being held a prisoner. She has him brought up and falls in love with him, but he is repelled by her. She has him returned to his pit. Salome's stepfather comes by and asks Salome to do an erotic dance for him. She says she will, but only if he swears to give her anything she asks. He agrees, and she strips for him. She then demands the head of John the Baptist. Horrified, he finally has to agree, and the last 20 minutes of the opera is Salome with the severed head - she kisses it, sings to it, and generally descends into full-blown madness, until her stepfather orders her killed.
Dramatically, the opera has two major scenes: Salome's dance and Salome's time with the head. They take about the same amount of time. Both leave the audience uneasy. It's creepy to watch a daughter dance erotically for her father, and watching an opera singer get naked seems voyeuristic and inappropriate. At the same time, the dance and the music of the dance is beautiful. The combination of attraction and repellence create a dissonance in the watcher and before we recover from it, we're hit with the gross, shocking appearance of the severed head and are then drawn into a long, insane scene of Salome with the head. It's brilliant emotional manipulation. The opera is one act and barely an hour and a half long, but it's a draining experience to sit through.
Or it should be. In this year's Met production, Salome is played by Karita Mattila, who is pushing 50 and looks like an older, heavier version of Nurse Ratched. In addition, Juha Uusitalo, who plays John the Baptist, is very fat; when Salome sang "I love your body" people around me laughed nervously as if they weren't sure if it was a joke. Salome's white dress emphasized the thickness of Mattila's waist and there was something wrong with the halter top: she kept trying to adjust it while she was singing. The camera work was relentlessly close-up, emphasizing every flaw and negating any poignancy that the set might have provided. The lighting had one setting (bright) and gave the production a cheapo, made-for-TV quality.
The striptease was just plain awful. Any choreography in it was reminiscent of a really low class strip club, and Matilla did two lap dances during it. It made me wince, and I don't think that's the reaction that composer Richard Strauss was looking for.
The set wasn't all bad, but it didn't make any sense. It looked like a 1970s disco with a glass floor and spiral staircases, but the libretto makes it clear they're supposed to be outside the palace ("Let's go inside" and "The wind is chill" and so on).
Mattila and Uusitalo have wonderful voices. The Salome role has a huge range and Mattila was perfection moving from soaring romantic vocals to harsh ugly sounds and avante garde bleakness. Uusitalo was especially effective when singing in the pit, and the echoy, off-stage effect worked surprisingly well in the cinema.
The reason I felt compelled to write about this performance (since I only review about one in fifty operas I see) is that the badness of the production helped clarify for me what a successful production would do. Salome needs to develop from vulnerable to damaged to beyond repair. The events in the opera unfold in real time, so we need to see how someone could lose their mind in an hour and a half. In the beginning the young girl is teetering between the decadent power of her parents and the innocent goodness that causes her to love a holy man. Stripping for her stepfather breaks something in Salome, but her essential goodness causes her descent to decadence to drive her mad.
This opera, like most operas, is all about scoring emotional hits - it's visceral, archetypal. The opera deals with innocence vs experience and spiritual longing vs forbidden lust. It raises the possibility of redemption: in the middle of a decadent party, Salome stumbles on a man of great holiness. It's about breaking taboos: along with incest, the most shocking aspect of the opera is that Christ's prophet is murdered. (Even Salome's stepfather is horrified by that.)
All the aspects of the production must work together so that the music and story and visuals all move the audience to understand something about human possibility and the range of our own souls. Done properly, we will all feel that we are Salome, losing our innocence but, in a way, finding redemption in being unable to remain sane without our natural goodness. Like all great tragic opera, Salome should be a cathartic experience.
The casting of an older woman as Salome was a disaster not because Matilla couldn't appear believable as an object of lust, but because she couldn't bring us, the audience, into the journey from innocence to depravity.