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Stephanie Salter

     Oscar Wilde as Salome, c.1894
In his rave review of Salome, the New York Times' Anthony Tommasini dismissed me and all those other boo-ers on March 15 as the usual "contingent of traditionalists" who haunt the Met. Not me. I'm from San Francisco and I paid $95 each for a pair of tickets because I was all ready to like the brand new Jürgen Flimm production. Instead I got yet another concept production in which the stage director was allowed to run roughshod over music and story, a production whose staging is so busy and so silly that, instead of pulling me deeper into an opera I quite like, erected a cold Lucite wall between us

Soprano Karita Mattila was fabulous as all the reviewers agreed (just as she was in SFO's Katya Kabanova), and indeed I cheered her in New York as loudly as I could. The whole audience did. We who booed saved our raspberries for Flimm, and Flimm alone. Here are just a few reasons why:

In his stage instructions, Richard Strauss was very direct about how Salome should act and dance: "Salome, being a virgin and an Oriental princess, must be played with the simplest and most restrained of gestures." So, would you call lap-dancing (yes, really), in a bustiere and tap pants, on her step-father Herod, "simple" and "restrained"? Would you use those words to describe the soprano careening from one end of the stage to the other, climbing up and down on scaffolding and railings as if they were monkey bars? (The woman next to me whispered, "I'm scared to death she's going to fall!") I suppose you could say it was restrained of Mattila to just stand and undulate while two male dancers in white dinner jackets pulled off her Marlene Dietrich-like male drag trousers—with their teeth!—but I wouldn't. This woman has one of the best sets of pipes in the business right now. Why must she also be directed to engage in mini-Iron Man competitions in productions like this? Let her sing!

Other inspirations for booing: Herod's Ricky Ricardo-like white satin tuxedo. The arguing Jews all decked out in contemporary Orthodox dress, including homburgs and curls (very ethnically sensitive, Jürgen). The whole damn set, which looked like a kind of Deco "Love Boat" in the middle of a desert (I swear I saw Isaac mixing cocktails and Julie planning the day's recreation) and included a "cistern" that was supposed to be veddy skeddy deep but was, in fact, stepped in repeatedly by one of the guards responsible for hauling John the Baptist up in a giant cage that looked more like a lobster trap than prison transportation. And then there were the Nazarenes, dressed like characters in Brother Where Art Thou, talking about Jesus recently turning water into wine at Cana to an audience of Herod party-goers all dressed like the cast of Dinner at Eight. Talk about cognitive dissonance. Also, much was made of the fact that Mattila did all her own dancing (which involved being lifted and whirled a la a quasi-ballroom terpsichore). Well, I'll allow as how she didn't embarrass herself. But, believe me, she's no Cyd Charisse, so why ask her to go down that difficult, specialized path in the first place?

I could go on, but you get my drift. I'm not a traditionalist (I loved St. Francis of Assisi) but when the production becomes a 3-ring circus that has the stage director fairly screaming his interpretation from the wings, I get annoyed.

Five nights later, I went to see Mark Delavan in Sweeney Todd at New York City Opera, and it was simply perfection. The Times was lukewarm (what's wrong with those people?) because opera singers just don't enunciate as clearly as musical stage people do, and the reviewer seemed to resent the supertitles for a show that debuted on Broadway. What a Mickey Mouse criticism. Taken on the whole (which is what I try to do when I spend a lot of money to see something), the entire thing worked big-time. Delavan brought his own—different, scary but very poignant—touch to Sweeney, and it complemented beautifully the Mrs. Lovett of theater vet Elaine Paige. (Devalan, a former Adler Fellow, is in truly superb voice these days, as anyone who saw him in the semi-staged Dutchman at SF Symphony last season can attest.) The orchestra was supportive (or driving when it was called for), all the secondary roles were well-sung and acted and— miracle of miracles—the staging was an enhancement, not a "Look at me! Aren't I clever?" indulgence by some guy who cannot possibly value the essence of opera—the singing!—as much as he does his own auteur's "vision."

OK. I feel better now.