Today was the Met’s first Saturday afternoon video broadcast for the season. I saw it at the Cinemark Theaters in Valley View, south of downtown Cleveland. I started going to that theater last season, because the one closest to me was always packed and unpleasant. Others have discovered it as well, because there was a much larger group, but all gray-hairs. I was amongst the youngest in the audience.
The opera was Richard Strauss’s Salomé, with Karita Mattila in the title role; Ildikó Komlósi as Herodias; Juha Uusitalo as John the Baptist; Kim Begley as Herod; and Joseph Kaiser as Narroboth. Patrick Summers conducted. The production was by Jügen Flimm, with sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto. The period was updated from biblical times to (perhaps) World War I, with Herod and his guests in evening dress. Herodias was in a glamorous black and green off-the-shoulder gown and was made up as if she was Elizabeth Taylor in the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” era. Fellow Salomé Deborah Voigt was the host, introducing Mattila before the performance (who words to the audience were that she was going out “to kick ass.”) And she did—it was a stunning performance. The camera was able to focus on the degredation. The only snort of laughter was when Salomé describes Jokanaan as “gaunt”. Mr. Uusitalo looked as if he’d never missed a good meal. He did not have the vocal force and magnificence of some great Jokanaans of the past (for example, Bryn Terfel most recently), but he was decent.
It was Karita Mattila’s show, however. She threw herself into the part, sliding around on the stage using her body as much as her voice. She was first in a slinky white negligee/formal dress, and in the final scene with the head of John the Baptist she was in a black bathrobe. Her voice was variously sensuous, powerful, strident, but she acted the part. It was an incredible achievement. It had been previously announced that the movie theater audience would not see Mattila “take it all off” at the end of the “Dance of the Seven Veils.” We saw her topless with her arms covering her breasts, but at the climax of the dance, we saw instead a close-up of Herod’s face in ecstasy.
The final scene, in which Salomé makes out with the severed head of John the Baptist, was riveting, alternating adoring and abhorring her victim and object of her lust. Her sexual energy built until the point at which she kisses his mouth. She is left audibly panting in post-sexual-climax exhaustion, with mouth and lips covered with blood. At the end of the opera, Herod orders Salomé to be killed. The scene is usually staged with soldiers crushing the Princess; in this case, the same black slave executioner pulls his sword and Salomé rips open her gown before the blackout.
As one should at a performance of this opera, I felt exhausted and filthy at the end. It is easy to see why the opera caused a scandal at its premiere in 1905 and why it was banned in some cities. Over a hundred years later it is still shocking.