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Opera review: Magnificently sung and played Canadian Opera Company Salome overcomes flawed staging

By John Terauds on April 21, 2013

Martin Gantner as John the Baptist and Erika Sunnegardh as Salome in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome (Michael Cooper photo).
Martin Gantner as John the Baptist and Erika Sunnegardh as Salome in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome (Michael Cooper photo).

Sunday afternoon’s opening performance of the second remount of Atom Egoyan’s staging of Richard Strauss’s Salome for the Canadian Opera Company wasn’t performed well; it was spectacular — more than making up for flaws in the made-in-1996 production.

The Four Seasons Centre audience was introduced to several excellent international singers alongside fine Toronto regulars, and the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra exceeded even its own exalted standard with the help of music director Johannes Debus.

Salome is not entertainment. It is a chilling, stomach-turning tragedy that has been shocking — and thrilling — audiences since its 1905 premiere.

Richard Strauss had seen Oscar Wilde’s play, and was immediately inspired to set it into a tight, 1-1/2-hour work, with the help of librettist Hedwig Lachmann.

Strauss experimented with dissonant sounds when depicting the situations and characters who are exploiting or taking advantage of others. Whenever true love or Christian prophecy enters the picture, the score turns lush and tonal.

It makes for one of the composer’s most satisfying musical adventures when performed well — and one would be hard-pressed to find better singers or a better-led orchestra than in this production.

Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnegardh, in her Toronto début, is fantastic as Salome, the strong-willed young woman who falls in love with the prophet John the Baptist, who is being held captive by her father, King Herod. The prophet wants nothing to do with her or her family. Herod asks Salome to dance for him — and she does so on the promise of getting John the Baptist’s head in return.

Sunnegardh has a voice that won’t quit, an uncanny ability to seamlessy unfurl one of Strauss’s long melodic arcs, and she is an excellent actor, depicting physically everything that we know is going on inside her heart and her head.

Canadian tenor Richard Margison is ideally cast as the blustering, not-so-clever King Herod. Veteran German mezzo Hanna Schwartz is in great vocal form as Herodias, even though her stage moves are limited to imitating Agnes Moorehead in the 1960s sitcom Bewitched.

German baritone Martin Gantner is a strong John the Baptist — a role he is sharing with COC regular Alan Held over the eight-performance run.

The rest of the cast was uniformly strong.

It sounds like a familiar refrain when it comes to COC productions lately: Close your eyes and all is golden. Open them, and the verdict is a bit more ambiguous.

Egoyan did some interesting things with his take on this Biblical tale, emphasizing voyeurism and inappropriate sexual yearnings, translating some of the psychologising into video projections.

But these projections are inconsistent, vanishing altogether about halfway through the opera. They are also not a novelty anymore, and seem a bit too discreet compared to the best video work being done in opera these days.

Derek McLane’s skewed-and-tilted, stylized set and Catherine Zuber’s Space Odyssey costumes look a bit tired, but Michael Whitfield’s lighting combines alchemically with Phillip Barker’s projections and Debus’s inspired work on the podium to create a truly world-rocking Dance of the Seven Veils.

This may not be the best-dressed Salome ever produced, but it sounds fabulous, making it something to consider if you’re in the mood for a short, sharp dramatic shock.

You can find details regarding the remaining performances, which run to May 22, here.

[CORRECTION: The Globe and Mail‘s Kelly Nestruck points out that the shadow work was done by puppeteer Clea Minaker. he mentions her in this feature article on the remount of this production.]

John Terauds

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