Riveting Dysfunction


Sex, Violence, Obsession Keep

With no discernible tongue-in-cheek emphasis, noted opera-theater director Francesca Zambello described the passionate Biblical-based opera “Salome” — which she’s directing for the Washington National Opera this month — as a “family drama.” “Really, if you think about it, this is a story of family and all the convoluted inter-relations in it,” she told The Washington Diplomat. “It may not be a typical family, certainly, but it could work on reality television. It’s perverse, true, it’s a troubled family — there’s a tremendous amount of erotic energy going on, which is why the story has attracted so much attention. It has sex, it’s violent, shocking and gory.” She might as well have added, but modestly didn’t, so what’s not to like? Richard Strauss’ “Salome” is indeed a decadent indulgence. Based on both the Biblical story and the 19th-century play by Oscar Wilde, the opera is “an acute psychological portrait of obsession in all its guises,” as the Washington National Opera described it. The beautiful stepdaughter of the infamous King Herod, Salome is spurned by the ascetic prophet Jokanaan (a John the Baptist character), devolving into a fit of rage and hatred as she demands Jokanaan’s head as payment for dancing for the lecherous Herod. Strauss’s masterpiece still reverberates with the intensity of the famed “Dance of the Seven Veils” scene, where the composer’s score is at its lush apex. “It’s extremely intense,” Zambello said of the production. “Hour and a half, no intermission, very focused, very emotional.” It’s what’s being described in promotional material as a “thrill ride to the dark side of the human soul.” You don’t hear that every day, except maybe in promos for the latest sequel to “Saw.” Zambello says the main character, Strauss’ score, and the great American soprano Deborah Voigt, who will play Salome, are the key elements in this production. “Strauss’s music is stupendous — it’s furiously focused, and it announces and assigns music to each character,” said the director, who likes to describe herself as an Evangelist for opera. “Deborah is one of the greatest voices and talents we have in opera today,” she added. From its first operatic incarnation, “Salome” has been burned into the annals of both popular and highbrow culture. And it’s no small wonder given the story’s combustible mix — the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” a lecherous stepfather, a jealous, murderous stepmother, a teenage siren and femme fatale who takes rejection very, very badly, an infamous kiss, religious strife, a beheading, and Middle Eastern politics circa Roman Empire times. To repeat, what’s not to like? Strauss had two more or less failed forays into opera before he struck gold with “Salome,” whose source material — an over-the-top play by Oscar Wilde, promoted with exotic artwork by Aubrey Beardsley — was already notorious. When the opera debuted in Europe in 1905, it was a huge success, getting 38 curtain calls for the performers. In New York, it outraged the audience so much — perhaps it was the kiss, perhaps the veils, who knows — that it was forced to close. But it left behind a rich residue in pop culture where Salome’s dance became the rage everywhere in carnivals, festivals and dance halls. Salome, the character, became the Lady Gaga of the turn of the century. In fact, Salome — who is first referenced by Saint Matthew — has always been a fascinating character for pulp pop. She’s variously seen as a seductress, a vampire-like femme fatale, or as a misunderstood victim, at least when Rita Hayworth portrayed her in the 1953 Hollywood spectacle. The opera version is always a challenge and not for the faint of heart, whether they’re behind the stage, on the stage, or in front of it watching the spectacle unfold. But faint of heart is probably not something anyone would call Zambello, who speaks four languages, travels back and forth between New York and Europe regularly, and has a keen eye for the theatricality in a work. She’s directed theater projects such as the musicals “The Little Mermaid,” “The Little House on the Prairie” and even “The First Wives Club.” She’s also taking over the helm of the Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York, while finding some time to do Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and direct “Porgy and Bess” for the Washington National Opera (WNO) last spring. In this current WNO production, she’s got a great cast to direct, especially Voigt, who’s considered by many the definitive Salome of her generation. Rounding out the cast are British heldentenor Richard Berkeley-Steele as Herod, Australian bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi as Jokanaan, German mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel as Herodias, and American tenor of Sri Lankan heritage Sean Panikkar as Narraboth, with Philippe Auguin conducting. And in Zambello’s mind, they all make for one great dysfunctional family. “‘Salome’ deals with unresolved passion: that of Narraboth for Salome, Salome for Jokanaan, Herod for Salome, Herodias for Herod. Only Salome’s passion is resolved, and that happens only through violence,” the director explained. “Salome’s perverse family resonates even more openly now than when Oscar Wilde wrote the play. Today’s audience relates to the sense of corruption and obsession, of passion gone awry.” Salome Oct. 7 to 23 Kennedy Center 2700 F St., NW Tickets are to 0. For more information, please call (202) 295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.