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LA Opera Brings Back Richard Strauss' Provocative 'Salome'
Richard Strauss' Salome packs a more dramatic wallop than almost any other opera. Adapted from the Oscar Wilde play, this one-act offers an intense portrait of its Biblical title character's emotional frenzy, which culminates in violent action against the object of her perverse attraction, John the Baptist. Though its essential story may be familiar, Strauss's music empowers us to react to the cataclysmic events with something more than shock or titillation.
The piece is also a pure star vehicle for any soprano who sings the lead role, and LA Opera's production—now playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—indeed gives us a real star in Patricia Racette. Fresh off a successful run at the Met in New York, the American Racette is an earthy, reckless Salome, whose position in her ancient society enables her destructive vendetta against the saint who is repulsed by her sexual advances. Even Salome's "Dance of the Seven Veils" is infused with more defiance than coquetry directed at her vile stepfather, King Herod, who has perversely solicited it.
The other star of the current production is company music director and production conductor James Conlon, who has aptly characterized Strauss's orchestral score to Salome as a "protagonist" in the work that "brutally impose[s] itself on the audience." Different operagoers at different operas may, to varying degrees, be inclined to register the influence of the orchestra on their impression of a performance, but the invigoratingly harsh beauty of Strauss' tone poem is inescapable and, here under Conlon, almost overwhelmingly compelling in its emotional definition.
No one besides Racette in the cast of this Salome particularly stands out for better or for worse. Peter Hall's old production remains appropriately atmospheric (though the indulgence of Strauss's caricaturish portrayal of Jewish religious leaders does not sit well at this point if it ever did). What does come through is the inherent fascination of this opera's depiction of a compulsive desire that transcends conventionally recognizable passion or lust, and the decadent milieu that cultivated this temperamental deviancy. There's nothing else in the repertory quite like it.