Monday, November 4, 2013

Portland Opera probes obssesion in all-new production of "Salome"

David Pittsinger as Jokanaan (John the Baptist),
Kelly Cae Hogan as Salome, Ric Furman as Narraboth © Cory Weaver /
Portland Opera
Portland Opera probed the edges of sexual obsession in a brand new production of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” on Friday evening (November 1) at Keller Auditorium. Starring Kelly Cae Hogan in the title role, the performance featured forceful and expressive singing that matched well with evocative playing from the orchestra under the baton of music director George Manahan.  Portland Opera had staged “Salome” only twice before, in 1990 and 1975; so this production was long overdue.

The opera is loosely based on the New Testament story as retold by Oscar Wilde.  The events center on Herod’s imprisonment of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) on the behalf of Herod’s wife, Herodias. She had divorced her first husband in order to marry his brother (Herod), and that marriage was considered illegal and immoral by Jokanaan. Herod and the captain of the guard (Narraboth) are bewitched by Herodias’s daughter Salome, but she ignores both of them because she is obsessed with Jokanaan. Herodias wants Herod to do away with Jokanaan, but Herod is afraid of Jokanaan, who is considered a holy man. Salome becomes so fixated on Jokanaan that she wants to kiss his lips and have him as a lover, but he is repulsed by her and refuses her. As you can guess, these obsessions lead to no good end.
Sashaying about in a flouncy prom gown, Hogan’s Salome reveled in an emphatic and unquenchable desire for Jokanaan that was palpable enough to draw a combination of nervous laughter and gasps of disbelief from some of the audience. Her soprano delivery was secure and spot-on throughout the performance, even when she was enraptured with the decapitated head of Jokanaan.
Kelly Cae Hogan as Salome © Cory Weaver / Portland Opera
As Jokanaan, David Pittsinger sang and acted like a man possessed, but in some louder passages, the orchestra overwhelmed his voice, which was consistently lovely, even in the most stentorian passages. Alan Woodrow ably conveyed a decadent Herod whose desperate infatuation for Salome got him into trouble. Woodrow’s helden tenor voice easily scaled up and over the many high passages, embodying the highly emotional state of Herod’s character. Rosalind Plowright created a cool and calculating Herodias whose willful personality was second to none except her daughter’s.  Ric Furman’s Narraboth was totally smitten with Salome, and when she touched him, he practically melted into a puddle. His singing was exceptional, conveying paroxysms of youth and naiveté.
The principals were supported by cast of excellent singers in lesser roles, including Melissa Fajardo as the Page to Herodias, Jonathan Kimple as the First Soldier, Konstantin Kvach as the Second Soldier, Andre Flyn as a Cappadocian.  Jon Kolbet, Ian Jose Ramierez, Carl Halvorson, Marcus Shelton, and Darren Stokes formed the contingent of Jews while Anton Belov and David represented the Nazarenes.
George Manahan led an inspired performance by the Portland Opera Orchestra, which explored the many dynamic contrasts of Strauss’s music, such as the wind that Herod only could hear and the lingering tones just before Jokanaan was beheaded.
Kelly Cae Hogan as Salome, Alan Woodrow as Herod,
Rosalind Plowright as Herodias in Portland Opera's Salome © Cory Weaver /
Portland Opera
Director Stephen Lawless deftly delayed some actions as long as possible in order to heighten the drama, such as when Jokanaan stepped out of his cell for the first time and also when his severed head was not revealed until near the end of Salome’s final, long aria. Also impressive was the moment when Jokanaan poured sand over Salome as he suggested that she get baptized by the Sea of Galilee. However, one of the more odd gestures was Narraboth's strange fascination with his knife before he killed himself with it.
The production, designed by Benoit Dugardyn for Portland Opera, updated the story to contemporary times, placing it somewhere in bombed-out shell of a palace somewhere in the Middle East. A huge collapsed floor served as a platform for part of the action. Directly above, most of the roof had been blown away, exposing the nighttime sky. A stairway on the right-hand side skirted a big holding tank where Jokanaan was held. 
The Dance of the Seven Veils, choreographed by Matthew Farrao, was marvelously conveyed by six dancers, suggesting the Herod’s confused emotional state. As the dance drew to a close, he discovered the real Salome, but his infatuation remained strong until he found her later. The sheer repulsiveness of her state of rapture with Jokanaan’s severed head is the final impression of this opera, proving that “Salome” still has the power to shock.  
Portland Opera's Salome © Cory Weaver / Portland Opera

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