Washington’s truncated season continues this fall with a new production of Richard Strauss’s one-act shocker. Staged by Francesca Zambello, whose Ring Cycle effort here was cut short by budgetary problems, the staging features the famous soprano Deborah Voigt in her company debut in the title role. Zambello stuck close to Biblical idiom for the production, giving us a very literal depiction of Herod’s court that vaguely evokes the Hollywood genre pictures of two generations ago without missing the work’s important color metaphors (white, red, and purple, all of which suggest death and decay). Her major innovation is to place a kind of translucent shower curtain across the stage to separate the scene of action from the off stage banquet. The idea is to show that all the characters are under observation and that larger constraints (society? public opinion? morality?) shape, direct, and condemn actions and choices.
This is a heavy interpretation of a work mainly about the relationship between power and death. While not the poorest or most tasteless interpretation of Salome out there, it does not exactly ring true on stage. Unusual twists water down the themes somewhat further. Jokanaan spends much of his time on stage looking conflicted between his horror of Salome, well established in the music and libretto, and an erotic fascination with the temptress that Zambello seems to imagine in him. Augmenting the Dance of the Seven Veils with four dancers all more talented than Voigt, whose nudity is, for the better, suggested at the end subtracts from the piece’s seductive effect.
Nevertheless, the cast soldiered along under the firm baton of Washington National’s new music director Philippe Auguin. He led an energetic performance that recalled how well the orchestra can play when in the proper hands. Voigt’s soprano has not always lived up to its reputation for size or beauty, but in the Strauss repertoire she can be called credible at least. Her Salome was vivid and strong, benefiting from fine supports and an impressive dramatic interpretation. Daniel Sumegi sounded rougher and more forced as Iokanaan but still captured the Prophet’s passions and conviction. Richard Berkeley-Steele’s fading dramatic tenor was easily adapted to Herod, whom he sang convincingly in his Washington debut. He was well matched by debuting German mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel’s Herodias, who held the necessary dramatic edge over him throughout the evening. Sean Panikkar stood out among the talented supporting cast in the role of Narraboth, a part that can leave a strong impression when performed by a fine tenor.