Washington National Opera's 'Salome' needs sharper edge

Washington National Opera's new production of Richard Strauss' "Salome" had a lot going for it Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, but just didn't heat up to a combustible degree. I recall the company's previous "Salome" eight years ago as a much more gripping musical and theatrical experience.

An unexpected drawback was Deborah Voigt in the title role, a role she sang wonderfully just down the hall from the opera house a few years ago in a concert version with the National Symphony.

This time, the soprano often sounded underpowered and, in the upper register, unsteady. To be sure, her phrasing was astute, and the essential musicality of the performance was never in doubt -- Voigt is a very classy artist. But, without being able to cut easily through the orchestra, without producing quite enough tonal lushness to enrich the most ecstatic passages, she wasn't able to make Salome a totally riveting, formidable presence.

I hasten to add that Voigt's acting had a lot of life; she effectively conveyed the petulant, manipulative, shameless nature of this hellion.

Perhaps the rest of the run will find Voigt in more consistent form. She'll still be stuck with

an unfortunate version of the famed "Dance of the Seven Veils," however (choreographed by Yael Levitin Saban). This one has several other dancers jumping into to sultry fray, a curious case of distraction and dilution. Except for a flash of nudity (Voigt uses a body stocking, surely), it looks like a production number from a low-budget movie musical.

Bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi sang vividly as Jokanaan, but needed a warmer, plusher tone on opening night to carry the full expressive weight of the Baptist's pronouncements. Although he lacked penetrating vocal power, Richard Berkeley-Steele made a colorful, dramatically telling Herod. Doris Soffel's darkly powerful mezzo served her well as Herodias; her phrasing was alive with color and bite.

Sean Panikkar had considerable impact as Narraboth, with an ample, beautifully rounded tenor -- and with a certain hunk factor that helped explain the adoration of the Page (mellow-toned Cynthia Hanna). The rest of the supporting cast did mostly persuasive work.

As in any Strauss opera, the orchestra is very much a major character in "Salome." The WNO ensemble met the score's challenges handsomely, ever-responsive to the company's newly appointed music director Philippe Auguin.

I admired the conductor's impassioned, attentive approach, but I wish he had offered greater contrasts of rhythm and dynamics along the way. Broader tempos and subtler sculpting for Jokanaan's lyrical reflections on the man from Galilee, for example, would have been especially welcome. Even the much-maligned Dance of the Seven Veils -- granted, not the finest passage in the score -- could have benefited from more elasticity and subtlety (check out vintage Fritz Reiner performances to get an idea of this music's potential). Auguin tended to move through almost everything at what seemed, after a while, like the same basic, taut clip.

Francesca Zambello can be counted on to direct an opera with conviction and flair, and much in this new production clicks, including a preoccupation with ropes that bind Jokanaan. I'm not crazy about seeing the Jews, fresh from their theological quarrel, grab chairs and ogle Salome's dance. But another use of a chair has a sizzling effect -- when the hormonally-active princess plops down on one to gaze for a while at the severed head of Jokanaan. Her subsequent wallowing in the blood on the silver charger has a compelling kick, too. (Earlier, Salome thoughtfully runs off to fetch that charger herself, a nice touch I don't recall seeing done before.)

Peter J. Davison's set is on the minimal side. The two main props are the crucial cistern where Jokanaan is kept, and a massive, semi-opaque curtain upstage (I've got a smaller version on my shower at home). Behind the curtain can be seen Herod's banquet; the shadowy figures add an air of mystery, but not a whole lot. Mark McCullough provides the often lurid lighting to flesh out the set (red for Narraboth's suicide, of course). Aided by Anita Yavitch vibrant costumes, the production certainly has a look.


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