Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Back to the Opera

The first live HD transmission of the Met Opera was a performance of Richard Strauss' "Salome", starring Karita Mattila, a very sexy, blonde, Finnish soprano. Her performance of this role a couple of y ears ago had been reviewed with great praise for her "Dance of the Seven Veils" - daring, sensual, completely erotic, a bit shocking, etc.  I mean, raves. I had seen her last year in "Manon Lescaut" and she was great.

The broadcast started with her being interviewed backstage by Debra Voigt, who told us that she herself had played this role in the past and that  it was a very strenuous part. (Ms. Voigt used to be a very, very large woman. Several years ago she was denied a role  at Covent Garden on the grounds that she was too big to fit into the costume even though she has one of the most glorious voices in the field of international opera. She has since lost a very, very lot of weight, but still it was hard to imagine her in the past doing any kind of dance, much less peeling off a bunch of veils.) So, anyway, she asked Ms. Mattila how she prepared just before going on stage. Ms. Mettila replied, "It's time to kick some ass!" and hurried off to the stage. Ms. Voigt looked a bit startled, as the camera followed the star onstage, where she proceeded to do a lot of rather gymnastic warming up exercising. She was wearing a very clingy sort of slip dress with a halter top, which she kept fiddling with, as if to tear it off right then and there. (I looked around to see if there were any creepy old men in raincoats in the audience.)

The opera was set vaguely in the present time and the set was quite grand and modern, with lots of metal contraptions and glass floors and platforms and an enormous staircase guarded by ominous winged human gargoyles. You just knew that really, really bad things were going to happen.In fact, one of the pages keeps telling one of the guards that if he doesn't stop staring at Salome, something terrible will happen. Who doesn't know that story? John the Baptist is called Jochanaan and he spends most of the time in a well under the stage so that all  you hear is his voice. Which is a good thing, it turns out, when you finally see him. 

Well, the first bit of hilarity is when Salome insists that he be brought to the surface so she can get a good look at him. (Every time his voice is heard, Ms. Mattila sort of gyrates seductively, as in hot to trot.) When he is brought up, she just about goes crazy. The singer who plays him is a man of very large girth. She looks him over and sings, "How wasted he looks!" Now this guy is lying on the stage looking like a beached whale and I don't know if the audience at the Met laughed, but there were quite a few guffaws at the theater here in Ohio. Then she goes on, "His skin is like ivory!" More guffaws in Ohio. The makeup artist must not have read the script: the guy is so filthy you can't tell what color he is. "His hair is like black grapes!" More guffaws as the matted dull wig the guy is wearing looks like something coming out of one of those discarded couches you see on the side of the road. "His eyes are so lustrous, like gems!" Huh-uh, more little piggish. Of course the audience at the Met has the advantage of distance, but we are right on top of the performers. Suspension of disbelief is simp,ly not possible. But surely they can see his bulbous form as it rises from the floor. 

Anyway, we settled down in expectation for the Dance of the Seven Veils, the much heralded highlight of Ms. Mattila's "Salome." And so far, the singing is great, even from the whale. After being cajoled by Herod, her lecherous stepfather, to dance for him, Salome disappears and soon returns, wearing a  top hat and a set of gray tails, a la Eleanor Powell from those 30s musicals, and I wonder if she is going tap dance the Seven Veils number. But, no, she is going to do "Dancing With the Stars", accompanied by a couple of courtiers in tuxes. They whirl  her around to Strauss' beautiful, sensuous music, doing leg lifts, spins - all the stuff you've seen on DWTs. (I'm giving her a 7 so far.) Then she throws off the hat, the jacket and the two guys help her off with the trousers and the long fishnet hose and she's down to a black bustier. She turns her back to the audience and flips off the bustier, turns back to the audience with her arms across her chest and that's about as daring as it gets. 

As Salome's reward for the dance, Jochanaan gets his head chopped off (off stage) and then Salome (now wearing a bathrobe) does her necrophiliac final, endless aria with the head, getting blood all over her face, and the curtain comes down as Herod orders the executioner to kill Salome. We don't get to see that part. (The ominous human winged gargoyles do nothing but stand on these tall perches for the entire hour and a half of the opera. I wonder about them. How would you describe a job like that? It's not even as noteworthy as being a spear carrier in "Aida", for Pete's sake. What do they tell their kids?) 

The next live HD performance is John Adams' "Dr. Atomic", about Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb.  The composer also did "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer". I probably won't go. 

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