By Richard Strauss
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove St., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Ralf Weikert
Directed by Lotfi Mansouri

Reviewed by Judy Richter

The San Francisco Opera's new production of Richard Strauss' Salome features American soprano Karen Huffstodt in the title role. Though this is her SFO debut, she has performed the role extensively and has recorded it with Kent Nagano and Opéra de Lyon.

Huffstodt endows the role with an intelligence and intensity that sustain the drama during this 100-minute, intermissionless work. She lacks the sensual sizzle that Maria Ewing brought to the role in 1993, but she's a convincing actress.

I can't judge her singing or anyone else's too well because one of my ears was temporarily blocked, but what I heard seemed strong and accurate. Certainly she has the stamina to carry her through this demanding role.

Her famed "Dance of the Seven Veils'' is more like choreographed movement (by choreographer Victoria Morgan) than serious dancing, and her costume for this dance (by Maria-Luise Walek) seems designed for maximum coverage, even at the end. Given that she's not as svelte as Ewing, that is the prudent, tasteful approach.

Oddly, though, Austrian baritone Bernd Weikl's costume as Jokanaan also seems designed for maximum coverage. This is quite contrary to Salome's lyrics, which speak of his beautiful white body. His costume shows only his hands, while his disheveled beard and hair obscure most of his face, belying her fascination with his red lips.

His singing seems fine, but SFO General Director Lotfi Mansouri's staging keeps him in one spot: perched on the edge of his cistern cell and not registering much emotion.

Walek's costumes work better for the other characters. The garish purple robes worn by Canadian mezzo-soprano Judith Forst as Herodias, Salome's mother; and American tenor William Cochran as Herod, Salome's stepfather and uncle, are appropriate for their characters. The two also do well dramatically, with Cochran's Herod giving Salome lascivious looks and Forst's Herodias demanding revenge for Jokanaan's insults. Their singing, though not as refined as one might wish, is satisfactory for the characters.

Supporting roles are somewhat mixed. The standout is American tenor Kurt Streit as Narraboth, the officer who's smitten with Salome. He has a lyrical voice with excellent high notes. Chinese mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao lacks vocal power; hence, her performance as the page seems incidental.

Daniel Sumegi as the first soldier, David Langan as the second soldier, Chester Patton as the first Nazarene and David Okerlund as the second Nazarene all do well in their small roles.

Perhaps the real star of this production is not a star at all. Rather it's the giant moon that looms over Wolfram Skalicki's set. This moon, perhaps thousands of times larger than our usual perspective of it, serves as a canvas for Thomas J. Munn's dramatic, mood-reflecting lighting design.

Echoing the moon's circular shape, the stage is dominated by a raked, tiled circular courtyard with another circle, the cistern, in the center. It's a design that works well on the Civic Auditorium's thrust stage.

Austrian conductor Ralf Weikert masterfully guides the orchestra through Strauss' challenging score, bringing out the nuances that echo and amplify the drama onstage.

Thus we have a production that's always at least competent and sometimes quite good.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:30 PST