Sunday, October 12, 2008

Appreciation: HD Salome

Viewers who betook themselves to the local multiplex on Saturday morning for the HD Met simulcast of Richard Strauss' Salome, were sorely disappointed if they came to see Karita Mattila in the buff. In the diva role, Miss Mattila cooed, stumped, pouted, belted and shouted through one of opera's most demanding assignments. She faithfully executed the dance of the seven veils, but at the end, she wasn't showing any more skin than you could find in a high school remake of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Bummer: I was hoping that at least they would sample in lantern slides of Britney Spears getting out of a Volkswagen. But if ever I am a diva at the Met (long odds) I suppose I will make the same choice: it is one thing to go prancing around in the altogether before 3,800 spectators live at the Lincoln Center—from the family circle, you can hardly tell whether you are gazing at skin or just a well-designed body stocking. It's quite another to face the prospect of spending the rest of your life finding your pink stuff displayed on YouTube.

But this insight introduces a larger problem with this HD performance of Salome. Miss Mattila has a fine voice and more, an impeccable knack for interpretation: she squeezed more out of the part than ever I'd heard before. But she's 48: Strauss said he wanted a 16-year-old Isolde; what he gets here is an Isolde pretending to be a 16-year-old. Again, from family circle you might have been able to ignore the incongruity, but from a few furlongs across a mail-box-sized movie house, it was on your mind the whole time.

The result was a Salome with a curious range of strengths and weaknesses. The first was Mattila, and forget about the incongruity—no strike that, Mattila in an extended conversation with James Levine's(!#$@!) Patrick Summers' orchestra. Together they gave you Strauss as Strauss might have wanted it: all his distinctive virtues were on display at their best advantage.

The tradeoff was that they tended to overpower just about everything else on the stage. As John the Baptist, Juha Uusitalo is competent but he doesn't really convey the batshit looniness of a man who talks with God. Herod and Herodias have an additional problem: they are earnest and attentive but they look far too much like Burl Ives and Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This might be forgivable if they sang with enough conviction to sweep away the comparison, But for my money, Herod in particular was remarkably tepid for so rich a role.

I had a fortuitous point of comparison in that we had just lately watched a DVD of Salome under the direction of Götz Friedrich (link). In a way, it's a mirror image of the Met HD: in the title role, Teresa Strata was a bit more plausibly a 16-year-old. But Hans Beirer as Herod walked away with the show. Astrid Varnay as Herodias had less to work with but she sang it well, and in terms of appearance alone, she was about the nastiest stage villainess you could possibly imagine.

In the end, I'll take 'em both. Mattila (and Levine(!$#@!) Summers') probably let me in on more of what Strauss wanted me to hear, but for sheer craziness, Friedrich is far more likely to start a riot. I mean that, of course, in the nicest possible way.

Footnote: Say, what was that kerfuffle between Voigt and Mattila in the intro? Staged? Or a bit of real theatre?


Anonymous said...

Um, the conductor was Patrick Summers.

Buce said...

D'oh. Thanks. Corrected.