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The Dance of the Seven Rapes

Teatro alla Scala
01/14/2023 -  & January 17, 20, 24, 27, 31*, 2023
Richard Strauss: Salome, opus  54
Wolfgang Ablinger‑Sperrhacke (Herodes), Linda Watson (Herodias), Vida Mikneviciūtė (Salome), Michael Volle*/Tomasz Konieczny (Jochanaan), Sebastian Kohlhepp (Narraboth), Lioba Braun (Ein Page der Herodias), Matthäus Schmidlechner, Matthias Stier, Patrick Vogel, Patrik Reiter, Horst Lamnek (Fünf Juden), Jirí Rajnis, Sung‑Hwan Damien Park (Zwei Nazarener), Alexander Milev, Bastian Thomas Kohl (Zwei Soldaten), Matías Moncada (Ein Kappadozier), Hyun‑Seo Davide Park (Ein Sklave)
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Axel Kober*/Michael Güttler (conductor))
Damiano Michieletto (stage director), Paolo Fantin (sets), Carla Teti (costumes), Alessandro Carletti (lighting), Thomas Wilhelm (choreography, reprised by Erika Rombaldoni)

V. Mikneviciūtė (© Brescia e Amisano/Teatro alla Scala)

Salomé is one of the most intense operas in the repertoire, thanks to its powerful libretto and score. Condensed into one act without intermission and focused on one character (Salomé), it can be frenzied. La Scala’s production, staged by Damiano Michieletto, is turbulent indeed. From the start, we’re immersed in a bleak atmosphere. Paolo Fantin’s austere black and white sets focus on an underground cistern where John the Baptist is held. A huge black moon hangs above the cistern, and a door at the back of the stage leads to the dining room of an early twentieth century bourgeois household.

Michieletto’s interpretation of the opera lies between Maurice Béjart’s legendary 1983 production for Geneva’s Grand Théâtre, starring Julia Migenes‑Johnson in a decadent early twentieth century Middle Eastern satrapy, and Atom Egoyan’s less felicitous 1996/2013 production for Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, which had protagonist Lolita/Salomé trapped in an abusive and incestuous family. The costumes and twentieth century bourgeois sets in this La Scala production are less luxurious than Béjart’s, but nonetheless appealing.

Michieletto sees Salomé’s outrageous lust (and later bloodlust) for John the Baptist as a result of the violence she has endured from an incestuous pedophilic stepfather and a need to avenge her father, murdered by his own brother, her stepfather King Herod. In Oscar Wilde’s original play, written in French in 1891, there is a reference to the cistern where John the Baptist is held captive as having been Salomé’s father holding cell before his murder. It would seem that the sight of the prophet in that location triggers the memory of the brutal murder.

Throughout the opera, a young girl, dressed in a green Lolita dress identical to Salomé’s, appears at dramatic moments, evoking Salomé’s traumatic relationship with her stepfather that likely started in early childhood. As in Egoyan’s 2013 production, this is a plausible but unconvincing theory, conceived to justify or explain Salomé’s outrageous behaviour. I prefer to see Salomé as a spoiled, capricious adolescent unaware of her behaviour or its consequences. This more conventional view affords a higher degree of sensuality, an essential element to the plot that is clearly stated in the score. Michieletto’s view is the antithesis of sensuality, therefore rendering this intense work nearly unbearable.

Central to the staging are five blindfolded black‑winged angels inspired by the paintings of symbolist French painter Gustave Moreau (1826‑1898), Saint Sébastien et l’ange and Jacob et l’ange. Birds and wings are referenced several times in the opera: “Ich höre die Flügel des Todesangel im Palast rauschen” (Jochanaan); “Du kreischest wie ein Raubvogel” (Herod); “Warum höre ich in der Luft dieses Rauschen von Flügeln” (Herod). So, such a choice is à propos. They may represent harbingers of death, given the imminent death of John the Baptist and Salomé. But given their great beauty and their being blindfolded, the angels may represent the loss of innocence, or simply the inevitability of destiny.

The grand bourgeois early twentieth century setting for Herod’s household is visually appealing, though somewhat implausible, given the squabbling Jews en tenue de soirée arguing about the scriptures, the Prophet Elias and John the Baptist. Other than Salomé’s 1905 première taking place during Freud’s heyday, Michieletto’s psychoanalytic approach has little justification. In a transposed setting, John the Baptist evoking Jesus and condemning Herodias’ decadence sound only like the ravings of a deluded madman. In such a scenario, King Herod could have well been Doctor Herod and Jochanaan a mental patient.

Vocally, the singers lived up to the challenge of their roles. The title role is often wrongly cast as a dramatic Wagnerian soprano. I guess the highly‑praised recording by Sir Georg Solti and Birgit Nilsson caused that flawed view. Salomé is no Brünnhilde; she is an adolescent girl. The most superlative Salomé of all time was the Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch, who had the voice of a young girl but was also large enough to convey the protagonist’s temperament. Fortunately, Lithuanian soprano Vida Mikneviciūté is a true singing actress who manages to hold the audience’s attention in this confused staging that demands constant attention to the never‑ending symbolism and rituals. However, no miracle worker can be seductive in the midst of such psychobabble. Mikneviciūté is also thankfully blessed with a versatile, melodic voice, easily navigating from girlish to feminine. Her soprano rose dramatically above the orchestra, and was especially effective in the final scene.

Polish baritone Tomasz Konieczny portrayed a serene Jochanaan (John the Baptist), able to adjust his voice between outrage against Herodias’s sins and depravity and tenderness in describing Christ the Messiah. Stage director Michieletto introduced a new unsubtle ritual: Jochanaan digs in the dark sand of his cistern – though a cistern is supposedly in water, otherwise the prisoner would be already dead in a grave – to uncover none other than a dead lamb. Agnus Dei! One of the blindfolded angels then performs a ritual bloodletting on the dead beast. While this may be visually interesting in a vampire television series for adolescents, it’s excessive, distracting and unworthy of a serious opera production.

Austrian tenor Wolfgang Ablinger‑Sperrhacke was an appropriately hysterical pedophilic King Herod. He had just the right small tenor « character » voice needed for the role. He was appropriately unctuous in his attempts to dissuade Salomé from having the Baptist’s head. Fluctuating from saccharine requests to desperate protestation, he was truly repulsive.

Veteran American dramatic soprano Linda Watson, once a leading Elektra, Isolde, Brünnhilde and Turandot, imbued the production with class thanks to her impressive charisma as Herodias. The role is mostly parlato and is not vocally demanding, but it calls for a formidable actress. Watson was able to convey fury, fear and even envy of her daughter’s youth with mere glances. Her performance was truly stunning to behold.

German lyric tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp was a first‑rate Narraboth, playing the pathetically lovelorn young captain to perfection. With the period changed, the idea of making Narraboth the butler of the bourgeois household made sense. Unable to tolerate his idol Salomé’s desire for another man, he kills himself. Instead of stabbing himself, Michieletto has him swallow pills, though it appeared he was unsuccessfully trying to halt a cardiac arrest.

Likewise, the page, a travesty role sung by German mezzo Lioba Braun, was changed into a matron, possibly Salomé’s nurse, a mature woman rather than a young boy. This made sense, given the epoch chosen by the stage director. She seemed to represent a caring maternal subconscious aware of Herod’s abuse of Salomé and prescient of the coming carnage.

The Dance of the Seven Veils, a high point of the opera, was obfuscated by another of Michieletto’s gimmicks. Salomé does not remove seven articles of clothing but is figuratively raped by six men (not seven men). Five of these seemed to be dancers, previously blindfolded angels, and the sixth was Herod. Probably, Herod counted for two in this “original” staging. What a pity, as Vida Mikneviciūté has a great figure and dances well. Unless the spectator is a sadistic voyeur, there was not an iota of sensuality in this ill‑conceived “Dance of the Seven Rapes.”

Conductor Axel Kober led La Scala’s orchestra adroitly, though at moments, especially in the final scene, the musicians played too loudly. But the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala generally played majestically and with spirit.

This Salomé was a missed opportunity, given the first‑rate singers and the excellent orchestra. The weakness was in its stage direction and conception. Hopefully, an audio recording will one day deservedly emerge for posterity. But if a video recording were to be released, it would only serve the needs of a horror movie or television series.

Ossama el Naggar



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