Hold onto your pearls. That scandalous “Salome” is back in town.
Utah Opera will present a two-performance run of the Richard Strauss opera, based on the Oscar Wilde play that in turn was inspired by the biblical account of the spoiled princess who demanded John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter. Because of construction in the Capitol Theatre, the company’s usual home, this abbreviated run will be presented in Abravanel Hall. But don’t think that the move to the concert stage will make this show any less theatrical, the opera’s stars and directing team say.
“It’s an immersive theatrical experience, something different than you’d see at a regular symphony concert or in the opera house,” said director Kevin Newbury.
The singers will be in full costume, with scenery and lighting. Newbury collaborated with costume and set designer Vita Tzykun on the highly stylized production; “Bible meets runway” is how he described her costumes.
John the Baptist — or Jochanaan, as he is called in the play and opera — will wear biblical-style robes in natural fibers, but the members of Herod’s court will be sporting opulent haute couture with leather, jewels and feathers, Tzykun said. “The higher on the social ladder, the more stylized and less natural they look.”
Don’t expect a traditional Dance of the Seven Veils, either. The dance Salome performs for her lecherous stepfather/uncle, Herod, typically is presented as a strip-tease. But that isn’t how Tzykun and Newbury imagine it. They hope to show, through symbolic staging, that Salome “will literally move heaven and Earth to get what she wants,” Newbury said.
For soprano Marcy Stonikas, getting inside the head of a teenage girl who uses her sexuality to bargain for the beheading of the innocent man who rejected her advances isn’t as tricky as executing Strauss’ vocal gymnastics. Conversely, baritone Michael Chioldi, who will play Jochanaan, said he sees his main challenge as bringing more than one-dimensional piety to the character who acts as “the voice of God.”
Is Salome a victim or a villain?
“It’s a hard question,” Stonikas said. “She’s certainly a victim, but she’s also completely in charge of what happens.” The soprano noted that most versions of the Salome story suggest that the girl’s mother, Herodias, puts her up to her murderous scheme. But Wilde and Strauss pin it all on Salome.
The concert-hall setting inspired another departure from tradition. Jochanaan’s underground prison will be represented onstage, and the captive prophet will be shown in silhouette rather than delivering most of his lines from offstage. “By showing his entrapment and suffering, we raise the stakes,” Tzykun said.
It isn’t just John the Baptist who will be brought above ground: The Utah Symphony will be seated onstage. Conductor Stewart Robertson said the move from the pit is only fitting, considering the prominent role the orchestra plays in Strauss’ opera. “The orchestra is very much a character in the drama,” Robertson said.
“It’s very much an orchestral tone poem — not to minimize the vocal parts, which are extremely dramatic, difficult and complex. But they’re laid down on a bed of wonderfully thick orchestration.”
The 1905 score still sounds strikingly modern, the conductor said. A distinctively unsettling clarinet scale, which twists from one key signature to another and back again, opens the opera. “It’s sort of amazing — no prelude, no overture, nothing, just that clarinet scale,” Robertson said. “In two or three seconds, [Strauss] captures this restless, jumpy, spooky sort of atmosphere.”
P Utah Opera presents Richard Strauss’ “Salome.” The Utah Symphony accompanies the performances, which will be sung in German with English supertitles.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.
When • Friday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 20, 2 p.m.
Tickets • $18 to $95 with various discounts available; www.utahopera.org.
Running time • About 96 minutes; there is no intermission.
In a nutshell • As Utah Opera principal coach Carol Anderson puts it, this is the story of a dysfunctional blended family, their creepy staff and the weird guest who keeps shouting random things at them from an other room.
Learn more • Anderson will give a free lecture an hour before curtain, and artistic director Christopher McBeth will lead a Q&A after each performance. All will be in Abravanel Hall’s First Tier Room.
Those who want to study up beforehand should check out Paul Dorgan’s commentary at utahopera.org/backstage.
Baritone Michael Chioldi, who portrays Jochanaan (John the Baptist), will give a master class on Monday at 2 p.m. in Gillmor Rehearsal Studio at Westminster College’s Jewett Center for the Performing Arts, 1250 E. 1700 South; the public is welcome to observe free of charge.