September 16, 2011By Heidi EllisonMusic

Salome (Angela Denoke) remained fully clothed and veil-free throughout the famous dance of the seven veils. Photo: Opéra National de Paris/Elisa Haberer

The poetry of Oscar Wilde and the music of Richard Strauss paired with a story that offers equal measures of spirituality, morality, corruption, jealousy, vengeance and pure lust – what more could one ask for in an evening’s entertainment?

The Opéra de Paris at Bastille has put it all together to near perfection, with no risky innovations, in its current production of Strauss’s Salome, in the version created by director André Engel in 1994.

Considered both textually scandalous and musically groundbreaking when it was premiered in Dresden in 1910, the opera exists in two versions: German and French. The Opéra Bastille is presenting the German version, with a libretto by Hedwig Lachmann based on Wilde’s play of the same name (which was written in French).

The story is well known: Herod, king of Judea, lusts after his stepdaughter, Salome, gorgeously sung by the appropriately slim, lithe and lovely soprano Angela Denoke in this production. She in turn lusts after Jochanaan (John the Baptist, well sung by Juha Uusitalo), the prophet who has been imprisoned by Herod. From his cell, Jochanaan can be heard cursing Salome’s mother, Herodias (Doris Soffel), which does not bother Salome in the least. Neither is she bothered by the suicide in front of her eyes of one of her suitors, Narraboth, when he sees her trying to seduce Jochanaan. She is not at all pleased, however, when Jochanaan rejects her advances.

Enter Herod and Herodias. The former praises Salome’s beauty and begs her to dance for him, much to the jealous disgust of Herodias, who smugly approves her daughter’s refusal. Then Salome has the bright idea of asking for Jochanaan’s head on a silver platter as her reward for dancing for Herod. There follows the famous dance of the seven veils, which is supposed to end with a naked Salome, followed by the shocking scene in which she cuddles and kisses the prophet’s head while singing of her love for him.

In this version, however, there is nary a veil in sight, and Denoke remains fully clothed in a sexy white dress throughout her dance (the usual copouts of a flesh-colored body stocking or a stand-in dancer for the soprano were presumably deemed unacceptable), somewhat diluting the drama of the episode, especially since at one point she even waltzes with Herod. But, while Denoke’s dance consisted more of gestures than real dancing, it was sufficiently suggestive to get the message across.

The singers, orchestra (conducted by Pinchas Steinberg), set (a handsome yet rather too staid interior with walls of Arabic-style latticework), staging and costumes of this production are all above average, one of the only weak points being the character of Herod (sung by tenor Stig Anderson), who seems out of step with the rest of the distinctly Middle Eastern appearance of the set and costumes in his long red robe. Neither does he fit into the time period of the story: he wears eyeglasses and even tries to light an anachronistic cigarette at one point. I was also put off by the occasional out-of-place attempts to turn him into a comic character; this was done even more blatantly with the rabbis, whose appearance and gestures are offensively stereotyped and exaggerated for comic effect.

With those few exceptions, however, this production fulfills the opera’s promise and provides the hoped-for evening of excellent entertainment.

Heidi Ellison

Opéra National de Paris: Place de la Bastille, 75012 Paris. Métro: Bastille. Tel.: 0 892 89 90 90 or + 33 (0)1 71 25 24 23 (from abroad). Remaining performances: September 20, 23 , 26, 30 at 8pm. Tickets: €5-€140.

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