Utah Opera opened its 2013-2014 season last weekend with the production of Salome, Richard Strauss’ erotic and horrific tale inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play about the biblical story of John the Baptist. The opera is notorious for shocking audiences with its sexual themes and use of blood and gore. It has a long history of controversy and was originally banned by several European opera companies, so it was a surprising choice for Utah Opera.
Utah Opera was up against the odds before the production even started; with Capitol Theater currently undergoing construction, the opera temporarily moved to Abravanel Hall. While the acoustics are outstanding, Abravanel lacks offstage wings, an orchestra pit and space for backdrops. So Salome had a limited stage with a minimal set, almost no backdrop and a visible orchestra. Add to that a story that pushes people to the edge and it may have been too much risk all at once.
The story of Salome, in a nutshell, tells of the prophet Jochanaan (John the Baptist), imprisoned by King Herod. Princess Salome, who is admired by all men around her (including her stepfather King Herod), is fascinated by Jochanaan and tells him of her uncontrollable desire to touch him but Jochanaan denies her. King Herod begs Salome to dance for him and offers anything she wants in exchange. She seductively dances the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” for him, then demands the head of Jochanaan on a silver platter as payment. The King reluctantly orders the execution. Salome takes her reward, then passionately kisses Jochanaan’s head, overcome with emotion. Horrified, the King orders his soldiers to kill Salome.
The music is beautifully passionate, mysterious and powerful. It drives the dark obsession of the characters and provides the suspicious tension felt throughout the story. The orchestra sounded wonderful, although at times completely overpowered the singers. When Marcy Stonikas (Princess Salome) could be heard, she conveyed the passion perfectly. But her portrayal of Salome’s sexual side struggled, especially during the Dance of the Seven Veils, which was barely a walking strut. In contrast, when the first production of Salome was performed in 1905, the original Princess Salome (Marie Wittich) refused to perform the dance because it was so provocative.
The climax of Salome is the horrific scene when Princess Salome kisses the severed head of Jochanaan in the finale. When I saw this opera in San Francisco a few years ago, Salome’s sensual obsession with Jochanaan’s lifeless head was indeed shocking, as blood dripped all over her and the stage. (This video of Nadja Michael at the Royal Opera House is a good example.) It was disappointing, although not surprising considering Utah Opera’s conservative audience, that there was no blood and no sexual tension during this scene.
The production, on the other hand, worked even with the minimal set. Set Designer Vita Tzykun took the unique approach of showing the audience where Jochanaan was imprisoned during the entire opera. Tzykun explained on the Utah Opera blog that the intention was for the audience to share Jochanaan’s sense of claustrophobia, which she pulled off successfully. The biggest issue was the visibility of the supertitles, which were difficult to read thanks to the lighting.
Utah Opera deserves credit for performing such a risky opera and for facing obvious challenges with its home away from home. Next up is La Traviata, one of opera’s most beloved stories, in January, back at home in the renovated Capitol Theater. Tickets are on sale online now.