Soprano Kirsten Chambers gears up for the sensual and spiritual elements of FGO’s “Salome”

By Aaron Keebaugh

Kirsten Chambers rehearses the Dance of the Seven Veils for Florida Grand Opera's production of "Salome." Photo: Lucia Escott

Kirsten Chambers rehearses the Dance of the Seven Veils for Florida Grand Opera’s production of “Salome.” Photo: Lucia Escott

Few operas have the dramatic intensity of Richard Strauss’s Salome. A biblical tale of power, lust, and necrophilia, the work was banned for a time in Vienna and London after news of its successful 1905 premiere spread throughout Europe. But the opera has retained a firm place in the repertoire.

Beginning Saturday night, Florida Grand Opera will present Strauss’s opera in a traditionally staged production that will feature a talented lineup of singers, most of whom will mark their company debut. These performances will be Florida Grand Opera’s first staging of Salome since 2003.

The opera is not without its difficulties, and Strauss’s lush, even opulent orchestration demands lead singers who can cut through the ensemble. The title role will be split between two veteran singer-actresses, Melody Moore and Kirsten Chambers.

Moore declined to be interviewed for this article. But Chambers says she is up for the challenge of one of Strauss’s most demanding roles. “You have that feeling that [the music] just doesn’t let up, and the transitions are so very quick,” she said in a phone interview. “Vocally, you’re singing over one of the largest orchestras and using the lowest part of your voice and the highest part of your range at the same time.”

With such a large ensemble to balance, the conductor needs to have a firm sense of the work’s architecture. And for conductor Timothy Myers, who will be leading his first ever Salome with this production, the heart of the score lies in the pacing. “I find that I have to work very hard to keep the long range in mind because otherwise it can become the kind of thing where you just go from climax to climax, sort of like an elementary reading of a Tchaikovsky symphony,” Myers said. “[With Salome] you really have to plan carefully and along the way be keeping in mind what you’re creating that’s going to happen an hour-and-a-half later.”

Strauss became fascinated with the story after reading Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name. (His opera is set nearly word-for-word from the Lachmann edition.)

Salome is the young princess of Judea who is constantly the object of desire for the men in the palace guard as well as her own stepfather, Herod. But she is transfixed by Jokanaan (John the Baptist), who is imprisoned in a cistern. When he rejects her advances, she is driven to madness and ruthlessly asks for his head to be delivered upon a silver platter, a gift in exchange for her dancing a striptease for Herod. The opera ends with one of the most gruesome scenes in all opera. After her sensual dance of the seven veils, Salome kisses and caresses Jokanaan’s severed head, and Herod has her crushed to death by his palace guards. 

Many modern productions of Salome tend to hype its sensual and murderous imagery. But Bernard Uzan, who is directing the FGO’s production, sees the story a little differently. 

Uzan says he sees the young princess as a victim of circumstance who is drawn into incredible madness by her family situation. Without revealing the ending of his production, he hints that there will be a spiritual revelation of sorts. 

“We cannot condemn [Salome],” he explained. “She’s a poor child from the beginning who needs help,” he says. Uzan sees the final scene as “ definitely a spiritual moment, because she finds salvation. We have to make Salome saved at the end.”

Chambers, who has previously performed the role of Salome with Opera Hong Kong and Metropolitan Opera, agrees with this vision. “I see her as an innocent young girl. I think she is a virgin, and I think that she comes from a really horrible environment,” said Chambers. “She says in the final scene, “They said love would have a bitter taste.” [But] she doesn’t believe that. I feel like [with Jokanaan] she finally found what she was looking for, which was real love, because she had never really felt that.”

“She’s [also] looking for some spirituality,” Chambers added. “It’s weird, like why does she fall in love with John the Baptist? Is it because he doesn’t see her as everyone else gawks at her? It’s his faith and his voice [that attracts her]. And it’s funny, because she talks so much about his body, his mouth, his hair, like she’s never really seen these things. But he’s made her feel something for the first time.”

The most obvious spiritual figure in the opera is Jokanaan, and though Strauss originally saw him as an imbecile, the character’s steadfast faith, underscored by some of the most diatonic writing in the opera, brings a religious dimension to the story. 

It is this layer of Strauss’s opera that attracts baritone Mark Delavan, who will also make his FGO debut with the role. “The most interesting thing that has been wrongly interpreted by most directors is that this character is Christ. [But] John says in his own words that he is not Christ. He is a messenger,” Delavan said. “In fact, he says about Christ, “I am not worthy to unlatch his sandals,” which says quite a bit about the man’s humility.”

Delavan has had the unique perspective of drawing from a role of John the Baptist in another opera where the events take place just before those of Salome. In Jerome Hines’s sacred opera I am the way, Delavan’s John the Baptist is a similarly stalwart figure. “John is quite powerful and quite articulate and quite accusatory [of the high priest],” Delavan said. “About the only change that I use in Salome is I incorporate some weakness because he has been in the cistern for some time.”

But he also finds another, all-to-human side to Jokanaan. “I freely admit, I take some liberties, because I don’t believe any man, prophet or not, when, in the presence of an extremely sexy young girl, is not going to be tempted,” Delavan said. “Some of his thoughts might be, “So what’s one little kiss? What’s the big deal?”  

Traditionally, Salome performances are les significant for deep spiritual meaning than for the opera’s erotic elements, such as the Dance of the Seven Veils and the disturbing final scene with the severed head. (Florida Grand Opera’s homepage even warns audiences that the performances contain partial nudity and that the opera is not suitable for children under the age of six.)

But in the age of televised sex, gratuitous film gore, and YouTube hijinks, does an opera still have the power to shock its viewers?

“Well it shocks me,” Chambers said with a laugh.

Salome opens 6 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House and runs through February 3. Performances on February 8 and 10 will be staged at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.; 800-741-1010.

Aaron Keebaugh is a regular contributor to Boston Classical Review. As a musicologist he has authored articles for the Musical Times and Dictionary of Music in American Life, and he has presented papers at meetings of the American Musicological Society, Society for Ethnomusicology, College Music Society, and Society for Musicology in Ireland.  Aaron teaches courses in music, world history, and U.S. history at North Shore Community College in Danvers, Massachusetts. 

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Wed Jan 24, 2018
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