Opera review: ‘Salome’ at San Francisco Opera


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Reporting from San Francisco

By all accounts, San Francisco is in love with Nicola Luisotti -- a 47-year-old conductor from Viareggio, Italy, and very Italian – as is he with his new city. Last month he became music director of San Francisco Opera, and his performance of the season’s opening production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” won unanimous praise.

Wednesday night, the gregarious conductor was on the podium for a new production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” at the War Memorial Opera House, and when he took his curtain call, he acknowledged the crowd’s clearly delighted cheers by patting his heart with huge swings of his right hand. That’s amore.

Big-hearted amore, of course, is exactly what “Salome” is not about. Even for San Francisco, this 16-year-old seductress who toys with John the Baptist, strips for Herod and then demands the saint’s severed head on a platter, which she kisses in bloody bliss, is supposed to seem somewhat more lascivious than the normal hormonally charged teenager.

It was hard to know exactly what to make of San Francisco’s new “Salome,” with its three competing elements. Luisotti was hired “to reinvigorate the core Italian repertory that is San Francisco Opera’s birthright,” general director David Gockley writes in his program book message. Each season, Luisotti will conduct one “breakout” non-Italian work that Gockley feels appropriate, and this “Salome” was his first time leading a German opera, which he did in lyrical and luminous fashion.


Nadja Michael was presumably brought in for something a little raunchier. Last year the German soprano was a sensation in a London production of the Strauss opera that took as its inspiration Pier Paolo Pasolini’s incomparably perverse film, “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.”

The new “Salome” comes by way of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and was considerably tamer. Directed by choreographer Seán Curran, with dramaturge help from James Robinson, it looks back to the early 20th century dancers and choreographers Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, especially in the “Dance of the Seven Veils.”

Michael may seem the ideal Salome. A former competitive swimmer, she is fit, moves well and carries off revealing costumes with ease. She is not without life experience, either. Born in Leipzig, she escaped from East Germany as a teenager not much older than Salome’s age, in the trunk of a car. She has the lung power to carry over Strauss’ immense orchestra.

Whether she is a sexy Salome may be a matter of taste, and that happens to be a raging debate in the opera blogosphere. Curran keeps Michael on the move. The set by Bruno Schwengl is an angular box focused towards a huge vault, the cistern in which John the Baptist is imprisoned. But Salome seemed more the prisoner in this space. A fidgety neurotic, she paced, pulled her curly hair, jumped, crouched and threw herself around like a crazed inmate in need of a straight jacket.

There may be more than one way to read this, but the production felt to me misogynistic by explaining away Salome’s behavior as craziness. Strauss may not excuse Salome’s behavior in his opera, but he makes her alluring and seductive through a score that explores a dark side of human sexuality.

Allowed a little more chance to focus on her singing, Michael may well have had fewer pitch problems, even as she thrived on the athletic challenges. After a clumsy but aerobic “Dance of the Seven Veils” (full of Duncan and Graham references), Michael was pumped up for her big final scene kissing John’s head, which she fondled and put between her legs in what was, finally, an impressive moment of real debauchery and amazing singing.

Strongest among the rest of the cast were Kim Begley’s lurid Herod and Irina Mishura’s iron Herodias. Greer Grimsley John sounded most imposing when singing through a megaphone off stage.

Curran presented the Five Hebrews, who argue about good and evil, as modern Hassidic Jews who notably (and perhaps offensively) stood out in a production that was not historically specific. There was, though, a Jesus-like figure, perhaps meant as a counterbalance. But unlike the Five Hebrews, he didn’t noticeably leer at Salome.

Were Curran looking for counterbalances, he had better material with a soft-edged conductor (who got gorgeous playing from the orchestra) and an edgy Salome. Unfortunately, though, there was no exciting offset between graceful conducting and an opera that falls far from grace.

-- Mark Swed

‘Salome,’ San Francisco Opera, 301 War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27 and 30; 2 p.m. Nov. 1; $15 -$310; (415) 864-3330. Running time 1 hour, 44 minutes.