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Oscar Wilde as Salome, c.1894
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
OK. I feel better now.