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OPERA REVIEW : Lehnhoff Stages Modern Version of ‘Salome’ at Met

Times Music Critic

A few years ago, Nikolaus Lehnhoff directed an epochal production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” in San Francisco. Dark, bleak and semi-abstract, it turned out to be a model of enlightened contemporary stagecraft. It respected the spirit of the decadent libretto while blithely redefining the letter.

Now, trendily aggressive and progressive to a fault, Lehnhoff has created a “Salome” for the Metropolitan Opera that violates the spirit and the letter of the original. It looked fascinatingly awful at Lincoln Center on Wednesday night.

There is, of course, a painful irony here. The Met doesn’t dare or care to go modern very often. When it finally does, it goes wrong. First “Bluebeard’s Castle” and “Erwartung.” Now this.

One can find much to admire in this emphatically original “Salome"--so long as one doesn’t happen to admire the specific intentions of the composer. Lehnhoff has invented lots of amusing gimmicks, some of which are mutually complementary, and he splashes them all across the vast Met stage with bravado. Jurgen Rose has created a staggering array of sleazy visual images that exert a compulsion all their own.

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Gil Wechsler has bathed the scenic orgy in expressionistic light and, where unavoidable, smothered it in moody shade.

The stubbornly antiquated synopsis in the house program insists that the biblical action takes place “on a moonlit terrace of King Herod’s palace in Judea.” No way.

Lehnhoff and Rose have given us a supersleazy basement in some black-walled, semi-expressionistic, neo-Nouveau disco. There is no moon. But there are lots of corpses lying around, not to mention glitzy matrons, supernumerary bimbos worthy of Weill and Brecht, and thugs borrowed from “Guys and Dolls.” Picturesque and oh-so-meaningful poses are struck on fire escapes, amid oil barrels and in jarringly mis-angled doorways.

This, clearly, is a nasty new world gone askew. It is delineated with careful thought, executed with loving detail. The effort is wasted, alas, within the given musico-dramatic context.

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The characters who inhabit the crazed environment are just that: characters. There is a petulant lady in a pink pomponed birthday-party dress who, in some sort of snit, peels off a few layers of outer skirts and throws her white gloves at a funny little guy in a tiger-skin shirt who does a lot of ranting. The lady, according to the program, is Salome. The funny little guy is Herod.

Then there is a portentous hippy who lives under a subway grate and wears a white robe. That’s John the Baptist.

And we mustn’t forget the dame with the spiked heels who has trouble navigating the raked ramps and can’t seem to decide if she is supposed to impersonate Margaret Dumont or Mae West. That’s Herodias. She makes her lascivious exit, by the way, on the arm of the big, bare-chested black slave who acts as the Baptist’s decapitator.

Obviously, there is a potentially beguiling parody hidden somewhere among all this puerile indulgence. Too bad it has so little to do with Strauss’ shocking eroticism, psychological thunder and poignant catharsis.

Given the weird comings and goings on the stage, not to mention the vocal shortcomings and shortgoings of a mostly second-string-cast, Marek Janowski did the wisest possible thing in the pit. He put his head down and made music--loud, clean and fast.

The Salome at this performance--possibly a dubious choice in the first place--was supposed to have been Eva Marton. The Hungarian diva hastily left town, however, pleading illness after a well-publicized disagreement with the management regarding future assignments.

Her alternate turned out to be Katarina Ikonomu, a Greek soprano from Tashkent who has sung the same role in the presumably more congenial productions of Paris, Zurich and Charleston. She looked reasonably attractive in her silly Shirley Temple costume and pouted deftly. However, she sketched Salome’s insinuating, arching conflicts in bright, somewhat shrill tones that proved notable neither for accuracy nor steadiness.

In the climax of the terminal scene, she clutched the freshly severed head of Jochanaan to her breast without besmirching her lily-white bodice with so much as a drop of blood. Even more disconcerting, she suggested that her lyric resources were too frail to compete with the lush, orgasmic utterances of the orchestra. Under the circumstances, it seemed compassionate as well as convenient for Lehnhoff to have her drop dead long before Herod, impotent and unattended, could order her execution.

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Graham Clark, Bayreuth’s Mime, was the buffonesque Tetrarch. Mignon Dunn served as his blowsy bride. Bernd Weikl barked mightily as the bearded Baptist in the basement (when the technicians didn’t turn off his sub-stage microphone).

The top ticket for this performance cost $98. The house was not sold out.


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