It’s often said that Atrauss’s Salome is really very simple to cast—all you need for the title role is a lissome teenage girl with the voice of a hefty Wagnerian soprano. Of course, the chances of ever finding such a phenomenon are slim, but I doubt if anyone will get closer to the ideal than Karita Mattila, who is currently singing the part in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production. At 43, Mattila is in terrific shape—a brief glimpse of her body stripped bare at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils reveals as much. She looks as fabulous in a clingy cocktail dress as she does in a Marlene Dietrich pantsuit while two attendants busily remove her fishnet stockings—with their teeth (yes, it’s an updated version of the opera).
The voice, too, is a remarkable instrument, wonderfully secure and evenly knit throughout its range, and blessed with the cool, crystalline tone so characteristic of Scandinavian singers. She does not produce a huge sound, but its precise focus ensures carrying power without any sense of forcing. Such a striking voice is surely right now at its peak, so savor the moment—these things never last long enough. Mattila is also a committed performer who digs into her roles with an interpretive intelligence and an expressive ferocity that are scarce in opera today. Even at that, she has chosen to play Salome with a welcome sense of restraint, even delicacy, portraying a manipulative girl caught up in an atmosphere of depravity that twists her mind and leads her down a dreadful path.
“Valery Gergiev drains virtually all the sensuous glitter from Strauss’s score.”
Despite the presence of this unusually effective and dedicated heroine, the production as a whole seems very chilly and detached. Santo Loquasto’s sets divide the stage in two, with Herod’s court on one side looking like a twenties Las Vegas cocktail lounge (a Salome cliché by now), and encroaching sand dunes on the other, where black angels of death perch to watch Salome’s grisly lovemaking with Jochanaan’s head. Exactly what this is supposed to signify is anyone’s guess; perhaps that a new religion is about to sweep in from the desert and overwhelm Herod’s decadent world. The message is vague in part because Jürgen Flimm’s direction is so muted and unspecific. He makes the characters seem more naughty and dysfunctional than repulsively evil or shockingly immoral, and there’s not a great deal of stage action to interrupt the conversational flow—the curtain even falls before Salome can be crushed under the soldiers’ shields. If this subdued production had been presented in place of the Met’s scandalous 1907 premiere, the opera’s first and last performance there for 27 years, New York society would never have even blinked.
The Met orchestra under Valery Gergiev’s direction reinforces the gray atmosphere. The conductor drains virtually all the sensuous glitter and color from the score, a blunt-edged reading completely at odds with the dazzling instrumental tapestry that Strauss so painstakingly wove. Although they never register vividly as characters, the other singers are all rewarding to hear, especially Allan Glassman, who substituted at the last moment as Herod and actually sings the role rather than resorting to the campy declamation most tenors deem appropriate. Albert Dohmen intones Jochanaan’s sanctimonious phrases sturdily, and Larissa Diadkova spits out Herodias’s venomous insults almost too beautifully. Yes, there is a great deal of vocal talent onstage, but only Mattila’s star turn lifts this Salome above the ordinary.