Vintage vixen

Jun 7, 2006 at 12:00 am

In the couple of decades since the triumphantly villainous film Heathers, the machinations of teenage girls — specifically, princesses with raging hormones and lousy parents — have become a cliché. But back in 1894, when Oscar Wilde wrote the one-act play Salome, it was not commonly accepted that 16-year-olds could be nearly evil.

In 1905, when Richard Strauss presented his shocking Salome, based on Wilde's play, many American opera companies refused to produce it and it was banned in Berlin and London. This week, Michigan Opera Theatre presents a damn fine production of Salome, and lead singer Marquita Lister is the one to watch as the girlish, pouty, stubborn and provocative teenager.

In the Strauss opera — with a libretto by Hedwig Lachmann — this paradigm of a willful girl lives in Palestine in A.D. 30. Stepdaddy is King Herod, hired by the Romans to keep the Jews in place. His wife Herodias, mother of Salome, is herself somewhat a slut.

Salome has the hots for prophet Jokanaan (Wilde's version of John the Baptist). She wants to kiss his lips, but he refuses. He's too busy spouting anti-Herod sentiments, babbling about the great one — "He who has the message" — and finds any talk of sensuality or sexuality anathema. Salome asks her stepfather to have Jokanaan's head cut off — not out of scorn, but so she can kiss it to her heart's content. Then daddy, who has a bit of a thing for his daughter, has her killed.

The character of Jokanaan is doomed from the start. If it were not for the fact that he's sung by Greer Grimsley in a magnificent bass baritone, he would only be a pest. That voice puts him way on the plus side as a character and a singer.

As Salome, Lister's voice is big and secure enough to negotiate the low notes in the declaimed text and the high, sonorous ones over the dense orchestration.

As an actress, she's successful in portraying this dominatrix teen in every way, whether spreading her legs like a child at play or lying on the floor in a funk, or especially that girlish giggle just before she agrees to do the dance of the seven veils for Herod who has promised her anything — and in her heart she knows that will be a severed head. There's also more dark humor in this Salome than you can imagine. When she sings "Let me kiss your lips, Jokanaan," but is rejected, she retaliates with: "Your flesh is horrible ... a bespattered wall, all crawling with snakes and toads." Hell hath no fury ...

All the way around, this production works, with first-class sets and lighting responding to Strauss' expressionistic score. Herod, the fat voluptuary, is sung expressively by Peter Kazaras; Graciela Araya as Herodias sings up her little snits just fine. There is also an attractive tenor, Roger Honeywell, as Narraboth, a lovesick puppy who is smitten with Salome and kills himself when she fawns all over Jokanaan.

But a severe punishment is recommended for director Bernard Uzan for two major gaffes. While the text mildy satirizes the five Jews who represent the oppressed natives, Uzan has them in a group bobbing and bending in prayer, making them look like buffoons. Hebrew liturgy is for religious gatherings in the temple or in the home or at graveside, not on Herod's terrace.

In the libretto, Herod ends the action with these words: "That woman must be killed." The stage direction calls for the soldiers to rush forward and crush Salome beneath their shields. We won't give up how, but Uzan's portrayal of the vixen's death is a diss as the culmination to this 97-minute opera. He earns a place in Michigan Opera Theatre's director's hall of shame, along with Mario Corradi, who, last season, had the tenor in Rigoletto sing the last moments of one of opera's most famous arias offstage.


Salome is 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 3, and 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 8, and Friday, June 9, at Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway; 313-237-7464.

Michael H. Margolin writes about theater, dance and opera and other performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]