Orchestra overpowers fine singing in Dallas Symphony’s “Salome”

Sat Feb 01, 2020 at 4:00 pm
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
Ausrine Stundyte sings the title role in Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s “Salome.”

Richard Strauss’s Salome was a bona-fide scandal when it premiered in 1905. Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s stage play of the same name — which had raised hackles with its overt sensuality and subversion of the New Testament source material — the opera was met with canceled premieres in Vienna and New York. Even with Gustav Mahler as a vocal supporter, Salome took time to overcome the hostilities.

Strauss’s lush score consists of a series of climaxes, set in exotic tone-colors that established the famed “Dance of Seven Veils” as the pinnacle of Orientalism. It is harmonically dense with a visceral thematic core, characterized by sex, carnal instinct, obsession, and mania. It tells of the Judean princess Salome, who finds herself enamored with the imprisoned Jochanaan (John the Baptist), despite his consistent rejections of her advances. So, in a crazed fit of jealousy and spite, she seduces her lecherous father-in-law, the Tetrarch Herod, into giving in to her demand of the prophet’s head on a silver platter.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s “opera-in-concert” presentation of Salome in concert Friday night at the Meyerson Symphony Center certainly highlighted the drama and volatility. Unfortunately, under Fabio Luisi’s baton, during much of the hour-long performance, the orchestra played with such fervor and gusto that they drowned out the cast.

Music director Luisi’s invigorating approach toward programming for this ensemble has so far yielded a rich panoply of vivid works, and Salome is no different. Sung in the original German with English surtitles, this performance is steeped in drama, and Luisi’s command over the genre brings a brilliant, albeit unbalanced, execution to the score.

Alberto Triola’s staging placed the singers in the forefront on an extended stage, with full orchestra in the rear. Even so, most of the vocalists had trouble staying above the texture. Tenor Richard Trey Smagur was notably bright and commanding as Narraboth, the young captain of the guard whose unrequited love for Salome leads to his suicide. Deniz Uzun’s mezzo soprano was a welcome bit of brazen warmth as Queen Herodias’s page.

Herwig Pecoraro, whose tenor provided the seedy, lascivious Herod, was capable, minus a glaring slip-up of forgotten text. Counter to him in rich, supple tone was mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as the scornful Herodias.

Mark Delavan, whose baritone provided a stalwart Jochanaan, sang partly from the choir terrace, a workable substitute for being imprisoned in a cittern. At times, his tone was lost beneath the orchestra, but when it rose above, it did so with a beauty and richness that was equally imposing and endearing.

Ausrine Stundyte as Salome, was, unfortunately, the singer most often lost under the orchestra. Her soprano — when audible — was agile, glimmering, and full in the upper ranges, particularly in the triumphantly erotic passages that follow Jochanaan’s beheading. 

However, through much of the expositional beginning of the piece, it was impossible to pick her out in the wash of tones and textures coming from the stage. But her “Dance of the Seven Veils,” a highlight of the show, was performed with an ample show of madness and sincerity, thanks to choreography by Catherine Galasso.

Even without costumes or any real set, the cast captured the dynamism and depravity of their characters, set against a vigorous read from the orchestra too often in overdrive.

The performance repeats 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Meyerson Symphony Center. mydso.com; 214-305-6217.

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