Review: Atlanta Opera’s Salomé is nonstop psychological thriller

Mark Gresham | 28 JAN 2020

When Richard Strauss completed his opera, Salomé, in 1905, Sigmund Freud and his psychological theories were in their heyday. “On Psychotherapy,” “Psychopathic Characters on the Stage” and “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” — which addressed issues of sexual perversions; childhood sexuality, and puberty — were among the books Freud produced that same year. Psychoanalysis, sexual neurosis, and forbidden passions were hot topics in intellectual and cultural circles.

The Atlanta Opera‘s new, original production of Salomé, which opened this past Saturday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, is deeply informed by that. It approaches the opera in a deeply psychological way, focusing upon the psychology of the characters.

To do so, production director Tomer Zvulun and his creative team have stripped the production down to clean essentials. The set and projections (Erhard Rom), lighting (Robert Wierzel), costuming (Mattie Ullrich) and choreography (Amy Levy) deliberately avoid setting specific time and place so the story’s timelessness is front and center. Projections are used not to replace scenery, rather to help penetrate and illuminate the inner psyche — a visual manifestation of what Strauss’ music and libretto reveal emotionally and dramatically. The stage becomes no longer representational, but a theater of the mind.

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Freud is everywhere in the score, manifested in the singing and orchestral underpinning: phobias about the future, sex, religion and God. Likewise obsession: Salomé with Jochanaan, Herod with Salomé, even Jochanaan with God. Ultimately, it all comes down to forbidden passion. That Strauss based his libretto on a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s eponymous play, which is only distantly evolved from any Biblical seeds, represents the zeitgeist of the times, which only reinforces the validity of this production’s approach.

From the moment Herod Antipas (Frank van Aken) appears on stage, the atmosphere is one of dissonance, echoed in the music Strauss wrote for him. He lusts after his young stepdaughter Salomé (Jennifer Holloway) and at the same time is fearful of the imprisoned prophet, Jochanaan (Nathan Berg), who is being held in a rather conspicuous cistern from which he proclaims the coming of the Messiah (“Nach mir wird Einer kommen”). As the show progresses, Herod’s mental instability is not only creating a whole chaos in his kingdom, but also ends up causing his demise.

Therein lies one important difference from traditional productions: at the opera’s end, Herod commits suicide, shooting himself in the head, rather than Salomé being crushed to death under the shields of soldiers at Herod’s command.

Scenes from Salomé:
(photo credits: Raftermen)

Jennifer Holloway as Salome, Adam Diegel as Narraboth and Nathan Berg as Jochanaan,
Diegel with the corps de ballet.
Jennifer Larmore as Herodias and Frank van Aken as Herod Antipas.
Dance of the Seven Veils. Van Aken and Holloway.
Larmore, Elizabeth Sarian (as The Page) and Holloway.
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It’s not the only suicide. Early on, the hapless Narraboth (Adam Diegel), captain of the guards who himself longs for Salomé (“Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salomé heute nacht!”), shoots himself in distress over her infatuation with Jochanaan.

Three different principal male figures at play, and the one Salomé wants is the one she can’t have: the ascetic Jochanaan. She controls Narraboth and Herod by refusal, and their deaths are self-inflicted. When she is refused by Jochanaan, her control of him comes through his death by decapitation. Freud would have had something to say about the sexual symbolism.

On the female character side, Salomé is clearly her mother’s daughter, as Herod points out (“Sie ist in Wahrheit ihrer Mutter Kind!”). The vengeful Herodias (Jennifer Larmore) is at once Herod’s wife and sister-in-law (her first husband was his late brother). While she is not happy with Herod’s advances toward Salomé, she is ultimately delighted when Salomé manipulates his lust to trick him into executing Jochanaan, exacting the revenge she desired for the prophet dissing her in public.

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Salomé herself is a twisted kind of ingénue. Her obsession and detachment from reality are illuminated by the enormous Moon that hangs from the flies. So enormous, iys curvature implies, that it is only partially seen. It also serves as a projection screen not only for a clear depiction of the Moon itself, but also projection of Salomé’s extreme mental and emotional state throughout her long soliloquy, visually dominating the opera’s final scene, in which she finally kisses the lips of Jochanaan’s severed head (“Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen, Jokanaan!”). The scene is a tour de force for Holloway, as is the entire challenging, range-stretching role.

And yet in this Atlanta Opera production much remains an enigma, left to poetic interpretation. It does not want to answer all questions and is more powerful by not doing so. It is a splendid, remarkably powerful and insightful effort from Zvulun and his team of creatives, with excellent singing and convincing portrayals all around by the sizable cast, and a most compelling performance of the score by music director Arthur Fagen and the Atlanta Opera Orchestra, which brought its own reputation up another notch in this not-to-be missed production. ■

Three performancess of Salome remain: Tonight (Tuesday), Friday and Sunday afternoon, all at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.