17 July 2015
Strauss, Salome, and John Crosby
By Craig Smith
Falling in love with the girl next door can be very special. But you’d better think twice if the lass happens to be Salome, daughter of Herodias, and princess of Judea.
For one thing, her mother has not exactly led an unblemished life. Her stepfather has the hots for her. Murder is commonplace at home. And while Salome herself is young, royal, and beautiful, she is also obsessed, spoiled, and given to crying for the moon.
What makes that especially worrisome is that she often gets her wish, even when it involves an execution … and even when the victim in question is none other than John the Baptist. This is not a girl to treat lightly.
Salome’s is not a very pretty story. But it is tremendously compelling, and has inspired artists, writers, filmmakers, choreographers, and musicians. From Cranach the Elder to Caravaggio and Moreau, from Oscar Wilde to Florent Schmitt and Ken Russell, films, poems, ballets, artworks, and opera have embodied the legend.
One of the most famed interpretations of Salome’s story is the opera composed by Richard Strauss — a riveting, single-act work of music theater. The Santa Fe Opera mounts the piece this summer, in its first production here since 2006.
Salome has received the most SFO performances of any Strauss; counting 2015, it will have been seen and heard here no less than 11 seasons. This particular occasion celebrates the composer’s 150th birthday, and also recalls that company founder John Crosby loved and served Strauss’s works without pause.
Crosby loved Strauss’s music because its multi-layered complexity mirrored the complexity of his own mind. He took great pleasure in researching and studying the operas. He loved repeatedly listening to recordings of Strauss performances to analyze every detail and accent. And he was never happier on the podium than when conducting Strauss.
Small wonder that he put on 13 of the master’s operas here during his tenure as general director, 6 of them American premieres. Only the early Guntram and the hugely demanding Die Frau ohne Schattenremain unmounted. As a result, The Santa Fe Opera has long been the place to go for American Strauss enthusiasts.
Casting the title part is famously difficult. Strauss’s score demands a soprano with a tremendous range of vocal ability. She also needs to be able to look the part, and render the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” with the lissome grace of an adolescent — or as the composer put it, “a sixteen year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde.”
Fortunately for Santa Fe audiences, the company has been able to find very persuasive artists to take on the part. Over the years, these have included Maria Kouba, Josephine Barstow, Helen Field, Mary Jane Johnson, and Janice Watson. Alex Penda plays the title role this season.
Salome caused a furor when it premiered in Dresden in 1905, and then again when it was put on at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907 with the great Olive Fremstad in the title part. It was banned after the first airing, and not seen in New York again until 1909, when Mary Garden sang the role in French for Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House.
Incidentally Fremstad, who sought to live her roles as well as act them, prepared for the opera by going to the city morgue to find out just how much a severed human head weighed, so she could appear realistic when carrying it!
This year’s artistic team predicts a fascinating take on Salome. Besides Penda, the cast includes Michaela Martens as Herodias, Salome’s depraved mother; Robert Brubaker as her lustful stepfather, Herod; and Ryan McKinny as the divinely inspired Jochanaan (John the Baptist).
David Robertson conducts. The direction is by Daniel Slater, and scenic and costume design by Leslie Travers. Rick Fisher is lighting designer. The choreographer is Seán Curran.
Salome plays July 18, 22, and 31, and August 6, 11, 18, and 27. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit us online.