Review: Lindstrom, Grimsley, Glassman Gleam in Sensuous, Searing San Diego Opera “Salome” – January 28, 2012

A year ago, American soprano Lise Lindstrom opened San Diego Opera’s 2011 season in the title role of Puccini’s “Turandot”, at opera’s end evoking a vociferous, standing ovation. This year, Lindstrom opened San Diego Opera’s 2012 season in the title role of Richard Strauss’ “Salome”, at opera’s end evoking a vociferous standing ovation.

Salome and Turandot are among the most demanding roles in the dramatic soprano’s repertoire. Lindstrom, who is of Swedish descent, and brings to mind the vocal powers of the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, has demonstrated the ability to occupy performance niches beyond the power voice we associate with Nilsson.

As Turandot, Lindstrom showed California audiences that she had physical beauty and stage presence. As Salome, Lindstrom proved the mastery of stage director Sean Curran’s brilliant dance choreography and psychologically aberrant portrayal of the Tetrach Herod’s stepdaughter.

[Below: Lise Lindstrom is Salome; edited image, based on a Ken Howad photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The San Diego Opera imported Sean Curran’s absorbing 2009 production, a co-production of the San Francisco Opera, Opera de Montreal and the Opera of St Louis. [For my previous production review and comments relevant to its revival in San Diego, see Nadja Michael a Sensation in Luisotti’s Soaring San Francisco “Salome” – October 18, 2009.] There I had made the case that San Francisco achieved one of the most successful presentations of the opera that I have witnessed in over four decades by a company known for doing the works of Richard Strauss very, very well.

Much of the credit of the production’s success was the insightful staging of Sean Curran, a former lead dancer, who has forged a second career in opera direction. But to implement Curran’s very physical ideas on how to present “Salome”, one must have a cast, especially for the five principal roles – Salome, Jokanaan, Herod, Herodias and Narraboth – who can achieve what Curran has in mind.

In San Diego, Lindstrom was joined by a uniformly excellent, world-class cast, including two veterans of the San Francisco mounting of the production – the Jokanaan, Greer Grimsley, and the Herodias, Irene Mishura.

For the Narraboth – the Syrian captain who allows his secual attraction to Salome to be manipulated into a career- (and life-) ending lapse of judgment – is a major presence in the opera’s first scene. [Because Stage Director Curran employs the increasingly popular device of opening the curtains so that several of the comprimario artists and other performers who will be present at the beginning of a given opera, can be seen wandering about the stage in character several minutes before the opera begins, we see Narraboth kneeling and watching the offstage Salome long before Conductor Steuart Bedford first raises his baton.]

Narraboth is the vehicle for the San Diego Opera debut of Sri Lankan tenor Sean Panikkar. The former San Francisco Opera Adler fellow displayed a maturing lyric voice that suggests he is at the threhold of a major intenational career. [For my recent review of Panikkar in a very different role, see Loving “The Last Savage”: Over the Top Menotti Charms at Santa Fe Opera – August 5, 2011.]

[Below: Sean Panikkar as Narraboth: edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The opera’s intense psychological drama and its exploration of the depravity of the tetrarch’s court, might cause a person unfamiliar with Strauss’ to assume this 1906 work, to be melodically austere. Instead, it is one of the most melodically lush and exotic musical scores in all of opera.

It, like Wagner’s “Parsifal” evokes the battles between Christianity and paganism. (Herod, of course, is nominally Jewish and consults with the various sects, but, from Jokanaan’s perspective, Herod, Herodias and family are all pagans. Even in our more ecumenical age, the Tetrarch’s court, certainly as Oscar Wilde portrayed it, seems far removed from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.)

Just as Wagner did in “Parsifal” Strauss creates some of the most exquisite music in German opera for the work’s references to Christ – Jokanaan’s Christ motive is as memorable an orchestral fanfare as the Zoroastrian motive that begins Strauss’ tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra (that Stanley Kubrick chose as the musical highlight of his film 2001.)

Jokanaan, whose stern exhortations of the hellfire that awaits Queen Herodias and her kind, delivered thunderously by Grimsley, also sings sweetly of his Master who is even now preaching in a fishing boat in the Sea of Galilee. Similarly beautiful music will be composed 45 years later when the hero of Britten’s “Billy Budd” will be singing of his own body after his death sinking into the sea.

Grimsley’s character seems so austere, inarticulate and mysterious to the characters onstage, other than the utterly fascinated Salome and the Two Nazarenes, who are in adoration of his message (and are nicely sung by San Diego Opera’s most stalwart comprimario, Scott Sikon and San Diego Opera chorister Nick Munson).

But Strauss provides the audience with the musical clues to understand the meaning of Jokanaan’s seeming ravings, and Director Curran and Grimsley leave no doubt that Jokanaan is not immune from Salome’s physical charms and that  he summons all his moral strength to resist them.

[Below: Jokanaan (Greer Grimsley, front center, tethered) denounces Salome (Lise Lindstrom, left, kneeling) while Captain Narraboth (Sean Panikkar, standing behind Salome) realizes what a mistake he has made; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The small reservations that I expressed about the San Francisco staging (that the Herod and Herodias combination, when compared with others that had sizzled on the San Francisco stage, were a bit underplayed) was addressed. Mishura, in her San Diego debut, meshed beautifully with the crippingly superstitious, debauched, elegantly mad Herod of Allan Glassman, an extraordinary portrait by this well-respected character tenor. One had no doubt that the Tetrach and his Queen were the exemplars for a corrupt and dissolute monarchy.

[Below: Herod (Allan Glassman, left) and Herodias (Irene Mishura, center) have different thoughts on how they wish Salome to behave; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Curran is not only the production designer and choreographer, but brings a keen sense of the history of theater and dance to “Salome”, incorporating sets and costumes (designed by Austrian painter Bruno Schwengl) and lighting (by San Francisco Opera’s former Lighting Director Chris Maravitch), that have a historical resonance with Continental avant-garde theater at the beginnings of the 20th century, the time of the opera’s premiere.

Lindstrom’s  wilden Tanz (the Hollywood  association of Salome with the “seven veils” dropped by Rita Hayworth has nothing to do with Richard Strauss’ opera or the Oscar Wilde drama on which the opera is based) is also inspired by Curran’s study of early 20th century dance choreography. The dance differed in detail from that of Nadja Michael’s Salome in San Franicsco, but was equally memorable and impressively danced.

[Below: Salome (Lise Lindstrom, center) dances with sexual provocativeness in order to achieve the object of her desire; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Grimsley’s Jokanaan, whose rantings are occasionally heard even while Salome negotiates for his head, sits in the dark in a cistern at the set’s back wall, which stands upright like a giant front-loading washing machine whose entrance opens like the focusing eye of a camera. The sexual obsession of Lindstrom’s Salome with the prophet is pointedly defined, as Lindstrom crawls around the cistern door as if she were rock-climbing.

Salome’s request for the execution and beheading of Jokanaan might have passed for merely a political act or an act of personal revenge, even as she demanded the head to be brought to her on a silver platter. Surely, Herodias thought so, and, in Curran’s production, takes the head from the executioner to deliver to her daughter.

[Below: Herodias (Irene Mishura, standing top center) holds the severed head of her enemy above her head to place it in the silver platter that Salome (Lise Lindstrom, below center) holds; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Salome then goes about to prove the point that no matter how depraved a person might be, there are always behaviors that that person believes to be beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable. Curran underscores this point by having every person onstage other than Salome turn their backs on her throughout Salome’s lengthy display of necrophilia.

[Below: Salome (Lise Lindstrom) holds Jokanaan’s severed head; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Glassman’s Herod, who now knows the meaning of the expression “be careful what you wish for” orders Salome to be killed on the spot and the opera ends.

Suzanna Guzman was the Page.  The five Jews were Simeon Esper, Joseph Frank, Joseph Hu, Kristopher Irmiter and Doug Jones. Jamie Offenbach and Philip Skinner were the Soldiers and Ashraf Sewailam was the Cappadocian.

[Below: Herod (Allan Glassman) can take no more and orders that his stepdaughter be killed on the spot; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]