A Night at the Opera

[Opera House staircase, Paris, France] (LOC) Long-time readers will know how much I hate my birthday. It’s not getting older–I flat-out love getting older, because the further I am away from my childhood, the better. Any family event was so stressful, growing up, that I find myself dreading anything approximating it nowadays, and getting nervous several times a year as those occasions approach.

However, my friends have told me I’m ridiculous, and a Birthday Restoration Project has been underway for years now. Earlier (much, much earlier) this particular year I broke down and bought myself a birthday present: season tickets to the Portland Opera. I had never seen a live opera, despite listening to recordings and watching them onscreen (Carmen with Julia Migenes comes to mind here) and I figured this would be a good way to do something nice for myself.

I’m so glad I did.

I went to the Sunday matinee of Strauss’s Salome at the Portland Opera. I figured, Sunday, the traffic and parking would be fine, and the kids are of an age where they can be left to their own devices for a short while.

Despite a comedy of errors early in the day (toilet overflowing, dropping a glass jar on a tiled floor, turning my ankle on a walk with Miss B, the Prince, and my sister, almost slipping and killing myself as I got out of the shower) and a further non-comedic comedy of errors (wrong address, weird parking situation, walking eight blocks) I made it to the venue in time. I was so nervous I almost threw up twice in the ladies’ lounge before curtain. (I don’t do well with crowds.) Anyway, I was soon settled, and my seatmate was a very nice gentleman who was amazed that it was my first live opera, and congratulated me on such a nice birthday present for myself. He’d seen Strauss’s Salome several times, and we chatted about the opera until we discovered that he was actually supposed to be seated in the row in front of me. So that mixup was resolved, and just after that the lights went down.

All sorts of things make much more sense to me now, after seeing an opera live. I knew singers had to project an amazing volume to be heard over the orchestra, but now I understand just what’s involved in that. Plus, there’s a lot of things in opera staging I hadn’t understood until I saw it played out live–things like the physical endurance required not only to sing but also to stay in one posture while someone else is singing, there under the hot lights. A lot of structural things about the music make more sense to me now, as well. The Portland Opera has this thing where a translation of the lines is projected above the stage, like subtitles, and I for one was thrilled by how accessible they made the entire thing. Sadly, I don’t have the time to be fluent in all opera’s many languages, so this added to my understanding and enjoyment immeasurably.

Salome is kind of a weird first opera. For one thing, it’s one act, no intermissions. For another, it was Strauss’s shot at becoming an international name, and he chose to do it through scandal. There is plenty of scandalous stuff in there–necrophilia, lechery, adultery–but I can’t help thinking that it was the big chorus where the Jews and the Nazarenes are arguing about religion that Strauss expected to be the more, ahem, revolutionary bit. Strauss, being sort of a Wagner fanboy, used a lot of leitmotifs, and though I’d listened to several different recordings of the opera in the weeks leading up to seeing it, I hadn’t appreciated how those motifs moved the characters around the stage.

The performers were an absolute treat to watch. Kelly Cae Hogan played Salome as a teenager who doesn’t understand the power of the emotions moving through her, navigating the treacherous waters of Herod’s lecherous attraction to her and completely blindsided by her sudden crush on Jokanaan (John the Baptist). Marry that to an absolutely incandescent voice (the bit where she has danced for Herod and demands the head of Jokanaan blew the doors off even the Decca recording, IMO) and her ability to project the selfish coquetry of teenage innocence at the mercy of hormones, and you’ve got a stunner. By the time she was kissing the severed head, blood dribbling down her white dress, you believed she was well and truly obsessed and would carry the head around until it rotted, a la Isabella and the pot of basil.

Ric Furman as Narraboth, so obsessed with Salome he ends up stabbing himself, was electric. I actually believed, when he staggered back onto the stage dripping with blood, that he’d done himself some harm. I should note here that Hogan’s portrayal of a teenager was so spot-on that her alternate insulting and complimenting of Jokanaan’s appearance made a ripple of amusement run through the audience, but by the time Furman’s Narraboth stabs himself that amusement had turned to steadily-mounting unease at the looming trainwreck and afterward, you could have heard a pin drop, so rapt was the audience.

I should also make special note of Rosalind Plowright as Herodias, Salome’s mother. When she’s on stage, you can barely look at anything else, and her portrayal of a proud, fierce royal woman insulted by Jokanaan’s slurs and determined to keep her daughter free of Herod’s grasping fingers was fantastic. It’s to Plowright’s credit that her Herodias doesn’t take the cheap way out of seeming jealous of Salome. Instead, you have a nuanced, layered portrayal of a character who is not given much to be proud of in the libretto. She was amazing.

Herod, Alan Woodrow, provided a steadiness and a believability that stabilised the entire production. It would be easy for such a salacious opera to go off the rails into absurdity, and Herod’s role is one of the keys for providing complexity and grounding. As a dictator who makes a promise he can’t back out of, as a stepfather entranced by his stepdaughter, he could easily have descended into scenery-chewing, but instead his Herod is all too human. So is Jokanaan, sung by David Pittsinger–his John the Baptist manages to rivet you from inside a cistern, and it’s to Pittsinger’s credit that by the time he stumbles out on stage you believe him a fiery God-mad lunatic who is humanly drawn to Salome but repelled by his own attraction. The music and his lines could have turned him into a one-dimensional cipher, but he manages to be complex and strangely human.

The staging was fabulous, and the Seven Veils dance was colorful and well done. The supporting cast provided a great deal of foundation for the principal singers to rest on, and the costume director deserves special mention–Jokanaan in chains and a bag over his head was a punch to the gut, and Herodias’s tall, sparkling presence was only enhanced by her dress. The peach veils for the Seven Veils dance were a nice touch.

The opera itself is a fabulous interplay of relationships. (My temporary seatmate–remember him?–remarked that there are six relationships onstage, and not a single one of them is reciprocal.) Of course Salome and Herodias are blamed for everything, Strauss’s moralizing was heavy on Original Sin. There’s a lot of sex-shaming, which shouldn’t surprise one, but what I didn’t understand until seeing it live was the layers of doubles and Strauss’s symbolism. White, black, and red are used over and over again in the music, Narraboth, Herod, and Salome all describe the objects of their affection and their sudden feelings of doom in those colors. Narraboth and Jokanaan are opposites, one so heavenly minded he’s no earthly good and the other so obsessed with a fleshly woman he can’t say no. Herodias and Salome, as the only significant female characters (though Melissa Farjado‘s Page provides a quiet, steadying stage presence that makes the horror even more awe-inspiring by contrast) could be played as rivals for Herod’s affection, though in this production the singers don’t do so (to their great credit, as far as I am concerned). Herod and Jokanaan can be seen as mirror images in the music as well–one the earthly authority, the other spiritual authority, at variance; they can also be seen as carnal urges and conscience.

That being said, the criticism involved in Strauss’s deft skewering of religious arguments and the cacophony they create should have been a greater reason for some of the scandal around the opera’s original performances. I think everyone was so shocked by the smexy Strauss managed to slip in said criticism almost unnoticed. It could be that, like Milton, he was of the party without knowing it, but I’d like to believe he spared no few internal smiles for so many people missing the damn point.

By the time the opera finished, I was slackjawed with amazement and shaking. And remember my temporary seatmate? He very kindly asked if I’d like to go backstage for a moment. Of course, I was cautious and nervous–I didn’t know this man from Adam, so to speak–but I followed, and it turned out he was the spouse of one of the singers. So, my trusty Moleskine notebook, where I’d been busy making notes before and after the opera, now has signatures from some of the cast, who were very gracious when faced with my stammering Sussex fangirl self. It put the capper on my birthday present to myself, and if that gentleman should ever read this–thank you, sir, and thank you to your lovely spouse and her fellow singers, who were gracious and patient with me. (When told this was my very first opera, one of the singers grabbed my hand and shook it, and cheerfully said “Now you’re ruined for every other one!” I could not agree more.)

It wasn’t until I got outside that I realized I was in mufti and covered in dog hair because I hadn’t been able to find a lint roller on my way out of the house earlier. *headdesk* I can only imagine how wild-eyed and crazy I must have appeared. I drove home without mishap (thank goodness) and was still shaking hours later when I crawled into bed.

All in all, it was fantastic, and I’m so glad I did this for myself. The next opera is Lucia di Lammermoor, one I’ve been looking forward to quite a lot, and now I’m wondering if it will compare. *grin*

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Diana Troldahl
Diana Troldahl

Having been married to an opera singer (my first husband) I can tell you your true admiration was what they noticed. They tend to be earthy, sensible people who are truly love their fans, whether they show up in jeans or ball gowns :-}

Colleen Champagne
Colleen Champagne

Your description made me feel like I was there and you always make me smile.

martianmooncrab
martianmooncrab

with a two act opera, you get the joys of halftime in the lobby with drinkies.. grin.

BassoonBob
BassoonBob

That was one of the most thorough reviews I’ve seen in a long time. You could be a Music Critic! (But as a performer – see my nom-de-blog – I’d hate to be reviewed by you if you didn’t like it!)

Jean Marie Ward
Jean Marie Ward

What a glorious introduction to live opera! Congratulations…and best belated natal anniversary wishes!