The Atlanta Opera's premiere production of "Salome" gives new life to an opera that was so controversial it was shut down after one performance following its 1907 Metropolitan Opera debut, and it remained unproduced in that New York bastion of the opera world for three decades. But this dark, twisted thriller about an unscrupulous tyrant, his seductive stepdaughter and the temptation of a holy man could fit right in with the lineup on Netflix today.
“Salome,” composed in 1905 by Richard Strauss, is described as a “a psychological thriller draped in lust, power and seduction,” in the Atlanta Opera’s program notes. Based on the 1891 play by Oscar Wilde, the German opera focuses on Biblical figures to tell a very un-Biblical story. While Wilde drew from Bible verse when constructing the play, the themes of incestuous passion, desire and a bit of necrophilia stray far afield from the original text.
The story, which takes place during a single night in the year A.D. 30, follows the captivating Salome as she scorns the advances of her stepfather, King Herod Antipas, and becomes entranced by the prophet John the Baptist, who has been imprisoned by the king. The prophet resists Salome’s fascination and entreaties for a kiss, so she uses the king’s desire for her, and a flirtatious dance, to get what she wants – the head of John the Baptist and, eventually, the desired kiss.
Central to the Atlanta Opera production are two performers with deep local roots.
Soprano Jennifer Holloway, who plays the title role, is one of a handful of internationally known opera singers based in the metro area. She spent her formative years in Atlanta and attended the University of Georgia. After graduation she moved to New York to start her career, but returned to Atlanta, although she often jets off to Europe for months at a time to perform. This is her second role with the Atlanta Opera. She previously performed the role of Dorabella in a 2011 production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.”
To prepare for the production, Holloway said director Tomer Zvulun led discussions with the performers about their characters’ desires and motivations.
“A lot of time was spent talking about the characters and what they’re feeling and how they interact and what we do together and how this affects that other person,” said Holloway.
The production is “more like theater, which is what I love about (European opera),” said Holloway. “That’s sometimes tough in the U.S., especially in regional opera companies because the people who are donating the money want to see big-dress opera.” Opera with sweeping gestures and big costumes generally doesn’t make room for in-depth character studies, she added.
As a performer at Atlanta Opera and a patron, Holloway said she’s noticed a deliberate shift in how the organization presents opera.
“I’m not trying to dis what was the old guard down here, but it was definitely something that even I, as an opera person, was not super interested in. And I see that changing,” she said. “I’ve gone to so many productions down here now that are exciting and current and accessible.”
“Salome” begins with a gloomy, slithering solo clarinet, ascending an ominous scale, but from that point on, the music is packed with lush and sometimes very loud orchestrations. The strings bite on the attack, the horns sing out with regal brassiness. And while Strauss’ orchestral score propels the action on stage, the focus is on the singers, who have to project over the orchestra and are sometimes tasked with seemingly impossible passages of notes.
“It is a bit relentless,” Holloway said. “There are probably two places specifically in the opera where it’s like, ‘I have just given everything I have, and I still can’t breathe for another 10 measures.’”
While the music is difficult, the constant acting and physicality of the role is what challenges Holloway the most.
“I know it’s just an hour and a half long,” Holloway said, “but there’s not a moment in this piece where Salome can be like, ‘OK, it’s somebody else’s turn to do something.’ Everybody must be engaged 100 percent while they’re on stage, and Salome’s on stage the entire night.”
Performing with Holloway is mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, an Atlanta native. She portrays Salome’s mother, Queen Herodias, who spends most of the opera either shielding Salome from the king or submitting to his wishes. Peeling back the layers of her character, Larmore said she found a protective but jealous mother trying to make sense of an impossible situation. She credits Zvulun’s encouragement for helping her approach the character differently than she’s usually portrayed.
“What you usually see are productions that have just scratched the surface of the characters,” said Larmore, a veteran of Atlanta Opera productions. “[Zvulun] has not only allowed us to talk about the character, but if it’s something completely contrary to what he was wanting us to do as a director, he was willing to say, ‘OK, let’s explore this.’ You don’t get that from directors normally. You don’t get that freedom.”
Her characterization of the role informs how she sings it.
“This is a woman who has to bite her tongue constantly. She wants to say a lot but she can’t,” Larmore said. “What happens in the music is Herod, or Salome or John the Baptist will sing all of these things that will go on for pages, and then Herodias jumps in and says one thing, and it has to be powerful in order to make a mark because she’s really not allowed to say exactly what she thinks.”
Rounding out the production is Frank Van Aken (Herod Antipas), Nathan Berg (John the Baptist) and Adam Diegel (Herodias’ page, Narraboth). Arthur Fagen conducts, and Amir Levy designed the choreography.
Today’s audiences may not be shocked by “Salome’s” themes, but Larmore suggests that gathering a little bit of information before the show might help people have a more gratifying night at the opera.
“The content is something that people need to understand,” Larmore said. “I think in order to enjoy it, in order to enjoy anything in opera or theater, you need to do a little research before you get there.”
'Salome.' Jan. 25-Feb. 2. $45-$150. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Pkwy. 770-916-2800, www.atlantaopera.org.