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SCRUTINY | Canadian Opera Company's Salome Revival Holds True

By Joseph So on February 5, 2023

COC Salome 2023
Ambur Braid as Salome (top) and Michael Kupfer-Radecky as Jochanaan (below) in the COC’s production of Salome, 2023. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Ambur Braid, sop.; Michael Kupfer-Radecky, bar.; Michael Schade, ten.; Karita Mattila, sop.; Frederic Antoun, ten.; Caroline Sproule, sop.; COC Chorus and Orchestra, Johannes Debus, cond.; Atom Egoyan, dir. Four Seasons Centre, Feb. 3, 2023.

Following closely the successful revival of the imported, Claus Guth production of The Marriage of Figaro that opened a week ago, the Canadian Opera Company presented yet another revival this week, a homegrown, 27-year-old production of Salome by Canadian director Atom Egoyan. This cutting-edge, director-driven Salome premiered in 1996 in the old O’Keefe Centre. It was brought back in 2002 and 2013, the last took place in the Four Seasons Centre. The current run is it’s fourth.

Based on the Oscar Wilde play, Strauss’s Salome is a musical tour de force and an incredible piece of theatre, dark, expressionistic and unsettling, once seen never forgotten. On opening night, the musical and dramatic impact were visceral, leaving one totally drained at the end of only one hundred minutes, quite short for an opera. This production has withstood the test of time — it remains as fresh and powerful as when it was new over a quarter century ago.

In Egoyan’s vision, the key to understanding Salome’s obsession with John the Baptist is through her past. To that end, Egoyan has created a backstory, told during the famous Dance of the Seven Veils. Video sequences show Salome’s traumatic upbringing as the root cause of her dysfunction. I recall in its premiere run in 1996; there were shocked reactions from the audience unaccustomed to radical reimaginations. One member of the press was outraged over the suggested images of Salome being sexually abused by the five Jews, minor characters in the opera.

COC Salome 2023
Ambur Braid as Salome (front) and Karita Mattila as Herodias (back). (Photo: Michael Cooper)

I believe there were some directorial tweaking in subsequent revivals, but Egoyan remained faithful to his original vision. Given the trend in recent years of opera productions becoming increasingly radical in directorial approaches, Egoyan’s take now appears to be quite tame. Indeed, I find his concept interesting, logical, thought-provoking, and not at all gratuitous — chacun à son goût.

Kudos to the COC for assembling a great cast, led by Canadian soprano Ambur Braid as Salome. She has previously sung it to acclaim at the Frankfurt Opera, her home theatre. While I have fond memories of the three previous sopranos in this production, namely Ljuba Kazarnovskaya (1996), Helen Field (2002), and Erika Sunnegardh (2013), Braid is the most complete Salome. She is dramatically riveting, and her rich, opulent tone with its powerful top an unalloyed pleasure. All in all, a remarkable performance.

Also worthy of praise is the Herod of Canadian tenor Michael Schade. Once a noteworthy Don Ottavio and Tamino, Schade has successfully transitioned to the character tenor fach.  He sang strongly and acted up a storm, arguably the most vivid Herod I have seen.  Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, once a celebrated Salome, is now an imperious Herodias. At 62, her voice has retained much of its beauty, and her artistry remains intact.

COC Salome 2023
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2023. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Making his COC debut as a fresh-toned Jochanaan was German baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky. His delivery was a bit stentorian at times, but given it’s the prophet John the Baptist, a bit of fire and brimstone is called for! Quebec tenor Frederic Antoun returns to the COC as a clarion-voiced Narraboth, well partnered by the Page of mezzo Carolyn Sproule. The many supporting roles were ably taken by present and former members of the COC Ensemble Studio.

Great singing demands the support of a fine orchestra, especially in a piece like Salome. The COC Orchestra, under its music director Johannes Debus was fully up to the task. The sound coming out of the pit was thrilling in forte passages and caressing in the many quiet moments. It was a performance to treasure.

Six more performances, on Feb. 5, 9, 11, 17, 19, 24. Details here.


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Joseph So
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