by ALEX ROSS
The New Yorker, April 5, 2004.
The first time the Metropolitan Opera staged Richard Strauss’s “Salome,” ninety-seven years ago, J. P. Morgan’s daughter blanched at the sight of a soprano making out with a severed head, and the production was shut down after one night. The ballerina who had performed the Dance of the Seven Veils on the Met stage decided to take her act to a vaudeville house, where she had a considerably warmer reception. America was soon in the grip of a Salome craze. In January, 1909, Strauss’s opera reappeared in triumph at Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House, with the bewitching Mary Garden in the title role. Not long afterward, a singing waiter at Jimmy Kelly’s, in Union Square, wrote a song entitled “Sadie Salome (Go Home),” which told of a nice Jewish girl who dismays her sweetheart, Mose, by playing Salome onstage. “Don’t do that dance, I tell you, Sadie,” Mose pleads. “That’s not a business for a lady!” It wasn’t much of a song, but it sold well enough to win its composer a job on Tin Pan Alley. A few years later, he wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Karita Mattila’s performance in the Met’s new production of “Salome” is unlikely to inspire a commemorative number from the next Irving Berlin, but by rights it should. The only word fit for the occasion is a British one: Mattila left her audience gobsmacked. She sang one of the most taxing roles in the repertory as if it had been written for her, and she delivered a physical performance that might have had any stray Hollywood executives in the audience wondering how to cast her in a remake of “Double Indemnity.” She made an organic whole of this outwardly lurid, inwardly elusive part. Salome, the Bible tells us, danced for her stepfather, Herod, and demanded the head of John the Baptist as a reward. Jules Laforgue added the scandal of the kiss, and Oscar Wilde piled on arch Symbolist poetry: “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” But what kind of love is this, and how can we bear to watch it? In the opening scenes, Mattila portrays Salome as an intensely vapid young woman, a club-hopping heiress type, who apes the decadent culture that bred her. Then the game she plays to keep herself amused—seducing the religious fanatic that Daddy/Uncle has trapped in a cistern—becomes an uncontrollable obsession. Mattila makes the transformation so supple that the audience ends up feeling pity rather than disgust. The character is fearfully real.
Mattila sang all the notes, which is diabolically difficult to do. In “Salome,” a soprano goes up against one of the great monster orchestras in opera history. At the most gobsmacking moment in the score—the point at which the executioner makes a gift of the prophet’s head—a hundred instruments flood the spectrum of the chromatic scale, leaving almost no room for the naked human voice. Mattila held out heroically against the onslaught. Her high A-flats glowed like searchlights in fog. Her voice is both richly lyrical and riskily dramatic, and has the same balance of qualities that makes for a great Isolde, which Mattila is certain to be. Only in the lowest register did she lack penetrating power—notably, in the cavernous passage about the mysteries of love and death. But every soprano is missing something in this role. Mattila sings as well as anyone on the twelve recordings I own.
Plus, she did a little dancing. Ordinarily, the Dance of the Seven Veils is a would-be titillating moment that makes everyone uncomfortable: opera singers are not, by nature, physical performers, and even the fittest Salomes seem out of their element as they muddle through whatever choreography has been set up for them. In fact, you don’t need a Kylie Minogue physique to pull off the role. Deborah Voigt, who was recently fired by Covent Garden because she was too big for a tiny cocktail dress, sings a mighty Salome, and she should be doing it onstage, perhaps with an arty concept to replace the dance. If the scene is to advance the drama, it has to be about something more than a woman taking off her clothes. Mattila, exulting in a transvestite striptease routine that echoed Marlene Dietrich’s “Blue Angel” and Madonna’s “Material Girl” video, made it more about Herod’s mixed-up fantasies than about her own: the tetrarch has more than a little Wilde in him, and he gets off on the ambiguities.
There is physical nakedness, and there is emotional nakedness. Mattila gives us the first at the end of the dance, and she gives us the second at the end of the opera, when, after a devouring kiss and a scary spell of heavy breathing, she hangs her head backward over the lip of the stage and delivers the final part of her monologue: “Ah, I have kissed your mouth, Jochanaan.” No one will soon forget the desperation in her tone and on her face—the desperation of one who has performed the most extreme act and is still trapped in an agony of dissatisfaction. To this Salome, Herod’s closing words—“Kill that woman!”—may sound merciful.
In realizing her dream performance, Mattila had much help from Jürgen Flimm, whose productions at the Met and elsewhere—“Fidelio,” the current Bayreuth “Ring”—have put him at the forefront of a generally dismal science. He is the rare director who makes tension visible. The sets, by Santo Loquasto, place the action at some vague date in the twentieth century, in a Middle Eastern country where the occupying authorities have hired a security force from the native population. Herod’s palace resembles a grand hotel on the edge of the desert: partygoers in opulent clothes descend a serpentine staircase and pose on stainless-steel furniture. John the Baptist is imprisoned not in a cistern but in a desert mine shaft; he is brought up in a rickety cage. The Jewish theologians in Herod’s circle are not averse to sipping champagne as they argue the Law. Sand dunes stretch into the far distance, and James Ingalls’s lighting hints at a menace lurking in the dark. Black angels with white wings periodically appear, watching and waiting. There might be a provocative allegory at work here—these ostensibly Christian angels have a certain Al Qaeda look—but what really matters is that Flimm creates a charged space in which something terrible is bound to occur.
Happily, most of the campy clichés that dog this opera have been suppressed. Herod is too often conceived as a dirty old man, and an aging tenor is let loose to chew the scenery. In fact, Herod is supposed to be quite a bit younger than his wife, Herodias; she acts like his mother, which makes the incestuousness of the scenario all the creepier. Allan Glassman, stepping in on short notice for Siegfried Jerusalem, sang the part instead of rasping it, and in the process revealed some trace of nobility, some tremor of moral compass, at the heart of the wormy tyrant. Larissa Diadkova, on the other hand, was too composed as Herodias; she could have chewed a little more. Albert Dohmen was a rock-solid John the Baptist. (This week, Bryn Terfel takes over the role.) There were some notable singers in the smaller parts: Matthew Polenzani lent his stylish tenor to Narraboth, and Morris Robinson, a former Citadel college football star, showed a glorious bass voice as the First Nazarene.
The shaky link of the evening was, surprisingly, Valery Gergiev. The conductor knows this score by heart, and he obtains his usual painterly sounds. There were trombone chords like groans from Hell, string tremolos like moonlight on water. But the middle of the opera, from Herod’s entrance to the Dance, sped by in a confusing blur. Many lovely, eerie touches were obscured—the little woodwind runs that suggest Narraboth’s blood dripping on the floor, for example—and the brass sounded flustered throughout. Slow down, Maestro: “Salome” is one of the briefest operas in the repertory, and every detail is worth savoring.
Earlier this month, the Met unveiled a largely nondescript production of “Don Giovanni.” It caused me to reflect on the legacy of Joseph Volpe, the Met’s general manager, who recently announced that he would be stepping down in 2006. As usual, the cast featured singers of high polish: Thomas Hampson as the Don, René Pape as Leporello, Anja Harteros as Donna Anna, Christine Goerke as Donna Elvira, Hei-Kyung Hong as Zerlina. But with “Don Giovanni” polish is not enough; Hampson lacked demonic drive, the joy of excess. Pape so completely stole the show that many people may have wondered why he wasn’t singing the title role, as he has been doing in Europe. (Answer: contracts signed years in advance.) The best that can be said of Marthe Keller’s production is that it has none of the bombast of the affair that preceded it, by Franco Zeffirelli. High brick walls predominate, in front of which perilously little happens; it appears as if funding had been cut off halfway through set construction, which, given the Met’s current financial difficulties, might have been the case. The combination of this lacklustre “Don” and the sensational “Salome” encapsulates the lotterylike unevenness of the company’s productions in the past decade.
Dawn Fatale, the pseudonymous Internet-based opera watchdog, has posted a screed on OperaList arguing that the next general manager of the Met should be something other than a ruthless administrator with a knack for whipping divas into shape. Instead, Fatale says, Volpe’s successor needs to be “a compelling spokesperson for the importance of live opera performance in New York and America’s cultural life”—a charismatic executive with a unified theatrical vision and a flair for marketing. Volpe and James Levine have maintained the Met’s historic eminence, but they have done almost nothing to renovate the company’s image. For too long, the Met has subsisted as a tautology: it presents grand opera on a grand scale because that is what the Met has always done. Falling attendance figures suggest that such complacency is inadequate, even suicidal. Like every major classical institution, the Met must devise new ways to sell itself to an uncomprehending but not incurious culture. In truth, the cancellation of “Salome” in 1907 marked not the last gasp of Victorian mores but the beginning of a century of caution. Surely it is time for the Met to get the J. P. Morgan out of its system once and for all. Why does opera matter? Karita Mattila can tell you.