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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Salome in High Definition


Last night I went to see the opera Salome Opus 54 by Richard Strauss. Traveling down to NY would have been a bit out of my way and a major drain on my modest entertainment budget, so I opted to attend one of the Live HD Broadcasts at my local movie theatre for $18. It wasn't exactly live. The actual Metropolitan Opera performance took place on October 11th, but it was sold out, so I had to settle for a re-transmitted encore presentation.

In his award winning book about modern music "The Rest is Noise" by Alex Ross (now out in paperback), he begins his extensive history lesson with this astute observation on page 1:

When Richard Strauss conducted his opera Salome on May 16, 1906, in the Austrian city of Graz, several crowned heads of European music gathered to witness the event. The premiere of Salome had taken place in Dresden five months earlier, and word had got out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale -an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company, a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that the imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.

In attendance that night were the composers Giacomo Puccini, Gustav Mahler (with Alma), Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Alban Berg.

It is not a stretch of the facts to say that modernism in music began with the opera Salome just over 100 years ago. Today people still find this piece to be a extremely rich and a challenge to our senses both musically and dramatically. It is overwhelming.

In preparation for my HD operatic experience, I spent a few days re familiarizing myself with the music by listening to three recordings while following all of the details closely in the orchestral score: Jessye Norman (Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Seiji Ozawa), Catherine Malfitano (Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi), and my old phonographic recording of Hildegard Behrens (Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajian).

As with anything, repetition improves familiarity. But there are always differences in performances too, and every singer has his or her distinctive voice. Of these recordings, Jessye Norman certainly stands out as a great Salome, but unfortunately the orchestra under Ozawa seems to lack clarity. Soprano Behrens is also wonderful in the demanding role of Salome, and was probably more agile on the stage than Norman (I can't imagine Norman dancing the vigorous Dance of the Seven Veils). The Wiener Philharmoniker under von Dohnanyi is markedly sharper in tone and balance, but I was pleasantly surprised with the orchestral sound coming from von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic in a studio recording dating from May of 1977. Although there are some very noticeable and annoying tape splices, I could hear things emerge from the orchestral texture that were just lost in the other recordings. My opinion of von Karajan has improved.

I would like a gig playing the off stage harmonium and organ part, that adds an unearthly pedal point into the orchestral terrain at a couple of strategic moments in the operatic score. The heckelphone has some good riffs too. There is a logic to the music that finds unity in thematic association and from relating keys to particular characters (e.g. C-sharp minor and major for Salome, C minor and major for the baritone Jochanaan). Visually in the score there are areas where the key signature indicates a particular key area related to one character, but the singer overrides the notated tonal center with accidentals on every note indicating their own key association. The levels of embedded meaning in an opera can lead to information overload - if not to a lifetime of rehearings, study, and new discoveries.

So that brings us to the Met HD performance...

The Finish soprano Karita Mattila was the star. She had caused a sensation when she sang Salome in Paris in 2003 and at the Met 2004, but she has held diverse roles throughout her impressive career.

One of the interesting moments in the HD presentation was seeing Mattila just moments emerging from her stage room door and before the curtain went up. How does an artist psych themselves before such a demanding role? Surely one would lose 20 pounds in a performance.

When the 47-year old Mattila was asked by an interviewer for a comment immediately before walking to the stage, she replied sharply "let's kick ass!" She looked as if she had just consumed 400 cups of strong coffee and was ready to cut off someones head. Mattila was mesmerizing in her role of Salome, and somehow increased the intensity of her performance all the way up to the climatic, but repulsively graphic and grotesque ending.

Salome is a one act opera that goes on at full intensity for something like and hour and a half. Not only does the part played by Salome need to sing with Wagnerian strength to be heard over the massive orchestra, but she needs to do so while acting, dancing, and moving around the stage in unnatural ways. I just find it amazing that anyone could memorize all of the complex music and perform it note perfect.

The conductor was Patrick Summers (his first Salome), but I could not hear the orchestral detail as I had in my recordings. Orchestras performing in the "pit" obscure the sound. I much prefer concert versions of opera for this reason. Perhaps the HD sound was not HD enough, or that the movie theatre speaker systems were optimized more for Star Wars than Strauss.

Also singing in this production were Ildikó Komlósi, Juha Uusitalo, Kim Begley, and Joseph Kaiser. They all "kicked ass."

The dramatic stage production was by Jürgen Flimm from Germany. As seems to be the established trend with opera productions, directors have license to alter the original work to contemporize it in some way - perhaps in an effort to make it more relevant or trendy. Personally I find this all to be a terrible distraction. I would much prefer to experience an opera in a production that is close to the original staging. Much effort has been made to perform music in its "original" context, with original instruments and performance technique. We honor the text of the libretto and do not alter it for convenience or language translation. Why should stage sets, costumes, and stage design represent an unrelated era or social context? Does the opera Salome not have enough thought and content to keep my interest, so additional layers of meaning need to be superimposed on the work to make it interesting? I think not. Seeing the singers parade around the steel and glass stage in tuxedos while sipping from bottles of champagne did not add to my understanding of this complex work. I found the libretto by Oscar Wilde to be complex enough, with his portrayal of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) at a fascinating nexus of world religions. I can make my own interpretation, and don't need a stage director to tell me what to think. Let the opera speak for itself, on its own terms.

But this does raise the question.... How does a 100-year old opera translate to a movie theatre in the suburbs? I was not overly impressed. The sound was not a good as I had hoped, the smell of popcorn was oppressive, and the floors were dirty and sticky. A man sitting in front of me kept checking his iPhone for text messages.

There were technical difficulties too. At one point the picture went out, and someone had to be asked to reboot the system. I didn't like the half hour of commercials prior to the "feature presentation" either.

I was also a little disappointed with the visual presentation too. I had assumed and expected that it would be more or less camera neutral. When you attend an opera you can see everything in its entirety, and you choose what area of the stage you want to focus on. But the producers of the Met HD Live series take a different philosophical approach. They utilize a lot of cameras, cut between them frequently, and come in for close-ups of their choosing. By doing so you miss out on the interaction between characters (especially in ensembles), and get a distorted perception of the overall space. I'd prefer be in the theatre and see the actors from a distance while maintaining a panoramic view of the entire stage. We don't need to see close-ups of severed heads and dripping stage blood on the large screen. That works a lot better in the "Chucky" horror movies than it does in televised Grand-Opera. When will they learn it's about the plot and the music, not the costumes and the staging?

But you should check it out for yourself. "Dr. Atomic" by John Adams is the next HD broadcast from the Met. I haven't made up my mind if I'm going to attend or not.

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