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You gotta have a gimmick, if you want to get a head

Palm Beach
Kravis Center for the Performing Arts
03/15/2013 -  & March 16*, 17, 2013
Richard Strauss: Salome, Op. 54
Erika Sunnegårdh (Salome), Ryan McKinny (Jochanaan), Thomas Moser (Herod), Denyce Graves-Montgomery (Herodias), Nathaniel Peake (Narraboth), Megan Marino (Page)
Palm Beach Opera Chorus, Greg Ritchey (chorus master), Palm Beach Opera Orchestra, Roberto Paternostro (conductor)
Renaud Doucet (director), Boyd Ostroff (scenic design), Richard St. Clair (costume design), Guy Simard (lighting design)

R. McKinny & E. Sunnegårdh (Courtesy of PBO)

For many of us Salome is a total treat. Yeah, less than great singers might tarnish a performance but it is the orchestra that is the star for this one. It is adapted quite faithfully from an Oscar Wilde play; a play that is very entertaining, and one given surprising detail considering the relatively small amount of Biblical text from which it is taken.

What imagination Wilde used to create a very seedy though psychologically involving story of a depraved world in which depraved people do disgusting things. And on top of that he manages to find sympathy for most of them, except for the title character's mother, Herodias. Daring in its original form in 1891, shocking to opera audiences in its 1905 and subsequent premieres, it comes as no surprise that it still packs a powerful punch in 2013. And for those of us who have seen this opera many times, there are still a lot of challenges. Directors have had many ideas on how to interpret the tale and its ramifications, and this one remains cheerfully traditional. The set is not overly flashy and offers just enough space for things to eventually feel somewhat uncomfortably cramped.

Palm Beach Opera's production unfortunately doesn't get very high off the ground. The orchestra, led by Roberto Paternostro, never achieves a suitable temperament. There were no awful flubs, no screeching strings or moments when the brass and winds were off key, but there was also little energy; strictly by the numbers playing and nothing could hurt this opera more than that.

Ryan McKinney seemed to be suffering from a cold as much of his singing was rough, but he painted a very noble figure of the prophet Jochanaan. Even when the vocals got pretty strained, the character was never compromised. And considering the circumstances in which we find this poor guy at the beginning of the opera, vocal debilitation wouldn't seem out of order. When Jochanaan made his pleas to “seek out the Son of Man,” McKinney was tremendously moving.
Denyce Graves-Montgomery displayed a powerful mezzo as Herodias. This is a strange role in that it is more like a big comprimario role. Herodias gets no aria and her background isn't well fleshed out to give her much more substance than pure evil. To have a significant impact she must be a committed singing actress. Graves-Montgomery has the requirements but isn't quite there yet.

The weakest link in this cast was the Herod of Thomas Moser. To give this role what it needs, a tenor must be willing to surrender restraint and go way over the top. Moser appeared tired or bored so his lust for the Princess was not only unbelievable, it seemed non-existent. And it should have been because in Erika Sunnegårdh we have a truly great Salome. When she makes her entrance, she looks like a young teenager and her behavior is very fitting. Flirtatious with Narraboth (exquisitely sung by Nathaniel Peake) in order to get what she wants, attempting seduction with Jochanaan and then frenzied by his rejection, this little temptress is a marvel. And the voice is glorious. Not only were the notes all spot on, she expressed each emotion at perfect volume. But without a nearly comparable step-father, so much of the intensity is never uncovered.

Renaud Doucet not only managed the placement of the characters appropriately, he called attention to details that often go unnoticed. Narraboth and the spunky, clear-voiced Page of Megan Marino got the performance off to a clear and energetic start. Having Salome licking Narraboth's blood off her hands as she gets a taste of death is a startling image. Salome's dance was not very inspired but perhaps movement is not Sunnegårdh's forte. At the same time, the sluggishness of the orchestra was not going to inspire many sopranos to undulate convincingly.
With so many things right about this production, it is sad to say that is should have been much better.

Jeff Haller



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