Opera, like most other natural phenomena, travels south for the winter in California. Which means it’s time for the opening of the San Diego Opera 2012 season which kicked off Saturday night with a first-rate performance of Strauss’ Salome. Based on Wilde’s faithful play of the classical Biblical tale, Salome continues to be one of the more shocking and outright graphic of all operas. This is abetted, of course, by one of the most shocking scores in 20th-century music, one that serves as the starting point of Alex Ross’ great survey of the topic, The Rest is Noise. When done as well as it is currently in San Diego, it’s as unnerving now as it was a century ago.
So what makes a good, Salome? Well first an orchestra playing as well as the San Diego Symphony Orchestra did under Stuart Bedford. After a bit of a tenuous start, they dug in admirably with a difficult often-raging score that can lurk in some intensely beautiful lyrical passages before lunging unexpectedly for the throat. The production, originally commissioned by Opera Theater Saint Louis, comes from choreographer turned director Seán Curran. It’s a bland single room that looks like some abandoned sewer with a large covered circular opening at the back that serves as the cistern. The costumes are mostly modern dress with a few accents that might suggest the Middle Eastern setting of the piece, and the whole thing relies heavily on Chris Maravich’s lighting design for any visual punch. I wasn’t crazy about the production last time it surfaced in San Francisco and am still puzzled by some elements. (Still with those copper-colored shin guards for some reason.)
But casting makes all the difference in some instances, and this plain production coursed to life with the enormously talented Lise Linsdtrom in the title role. That she looks gorgeous in this physically demanding role is one thing. But the fact that she can actually sing the part, and do so much better than most, is another matter all together. Her tone is even and well placed without ever turning shrill or her having to yell, a not uncommon occurrence in this particular role. She cuts through the orchestra readily when she needs to, and her final monologue on the mysteries of love and death came off as fresh and authentic. We’ll take some more of her please, and soon. And then there’s that dance. Lindstrom takes Curran’s twist on the dance of the seven veils by making it less of a striptease and a bit more contemporary with Salome using various bolts of cloth to engage, cajole, and tease Herod. Lindstrom makes the whole thing sexy in a way that is surprisingly understated and direct.
She has quite good colleagues around her on stage. Allan Glassman gives one of the more complex performances of Herod than I’ve seen in a while and avoided barking or mincing around the stage. Sean Panikkar was a sweet-voiced Narraboth and Irina Mishura avoided making Herodias overly campy, another common pitfall. Popular American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley sang one of his signature roles with Jochanaan and looked every bit as seductive as Salome imagines him to be. Oddly, his booming sound came clearest where I was sitting when Jochanaan was singing off-stage from within the cistern and somewhat muddier when he was onstage bare-chested and in chains. In any event, this is a show that works in the biggest moments and is blessed with talents both onstage and in the pit that make a great evening out of the most basic elements.