West Bay Opera is ending its 61st season with guns blazing -- both literally (more on that later) and figuratively -- aiming, with great success, for a production of Richard Strauss' "Salome" that meets high artistic standards while commenting on grave problems and perils in today's world.
Opening last Friday in the Lucie Stern Theatre, with two more performances next weekend, "Salome" is a retelling of the biblical story in which John the Baptist meets his end in the court of King Herod. The opera's libretto is a German translation of the 19th-century Oscar Wilde play of the same name -- a play that highlighted the lust and debauchery of Salome and her stepfather, the king.
This production is set, in the words of the opera company, in "a post-Trumpian dystopia"; the characters roam a stage designed as a desolate encampment where the royal family, its servants and soldiers are gathered after a nuclear blast. The royal finery and biblical-era costumes traditionally seen in this opera are replaced by torn and ragged clothing, the characters bear scars and scowls, and a miasma of doom is almost palpable. West Bay's interpretation of the Salome story highlights the destructive force of excess, of recklessness, of the lead characters' inability to feel empathy toward others.
If this all sounds like a scene you should avoid like the creature-lurking Black Lagoon, take heart. Because no matter how effectively the dystopian aspects of this powerful opera are conveyed by the bleak and eerie set, the physical staging cannot upstage the brilliant singing and glorious orchestral performance that mark this production.
Dramatic soprano Heather Green is a dynamic Salome, with a voice up to the challenge of this demanding role. Her performance is fearless, as is her singing: piercing at moments, lovely at times, and strangely discomfiting when appropriate. But always precise in her portrayal of a spoiled, wanton young woman who, in the opera's final scene, is the embodiment of depravity.
She is a powerhouse among a cast of such singers. Baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala sends chills in his role of John the Baptist, called Jochanaan in the opera. When he emerges for the first time from the cistern that is his prison, he is in chains but, thankfully, his voice is unbound. And what a voice it is -- rich, expressive and splendid.
Tenor David Gustafson as Herod and mezzo-soprano Michelle Rice as Herodias are superb. Rice's voice is lush, vibrant and thrilling to hear. Gustafson's magnificent voice is fitting for a king.
The cast is rich in talented singers performing smaller roles as well. Among them is tenor Alonso Sicairos Leon as Narraboth.
"Salome" is a challenging opera. When Strauss was preparing for the premiere performance in 1905, the original cast reportedly complained that it was "unsingable." And the demands placed on the orchestra are great as well. Strauss called for an expanded orchestra, which proved to be a problem for smaller venues. Where will all those players sit?
In a courageous move, conductor Jose Luis Moscovich expanded the size of his orchestra, which because of the Lucie Stern's limited space is typically quite small. While string players and the harpist are in the pit, the other players perform onstage, from the sides. It works beautifully. Under Moscovich's direction, the orchestra's performance is breathtaking.
"Salome" is co-produced by Escenia Ensamble of Mexico City; that company's artistic director, Ragnar Conde, is "Salome's" stage director. He and other behind-the-scenes crew members, including set designer Peter Crompton, deserve high praise for creating an effective and provocative dystopian setting.
The choices made to achieve this are sometimes jarring, sometimes hilarious. An example: King Harod is outfitted in a tattered blue suit and a long red tie; he wears a yellow wig atop his scarred head in the style of a certain political leader whose widely reported lecherous behavior might be seen as similar to the lustful king's.
The opera ends with the death of Salome, whom the king orders killed after witnessing her "monstrous" interaction with the severed head of John the Baptist. In the original version, the soldiers crush her with their shields; in this version, they snuff out her life at the ends of their glowing laser rifles.
Oscar Wilde's transgressive retelling of Salome's story makes this work a powerful artistic achievement. Strauss' music places it among the most important works of the 20th century opera repertoire. West Bay Opera's staging of "Salome" for our unstable, dangerous times should compel locals to reserve their seats for next weekend's closing performances. It's one of a kind.
As one man who had previously seen "Salome" elsewhere said as he walked toward the exit on opening night, "I won't forget this one."
If you go
"Salome," staged by West Bay Opera and co-produced by Escenia Ensamble of Mexico City, ends this weekend with performances on June 3 and 4 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. Tickets are $40 to $83, with group discounts available. Tickets: (650) 424-9999 (preferred); or at WBOpera.org, where additional information is available.