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Tragic Seduction

Classical Review

Feb. 20, 2008
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Once in a great while someone comes along whose talent leaves you breathless. Swedish soprano Erika Sunngardh’s performance of the title role in Richard Strauss’ opera Salome last weekend at Florentine Opera was nothing short of magnificent in every regard.

This opera, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, is the most disturbing in the repertory. Salome, beautiful princess of Judea, falls in love and lust with the captive John the Baptist (Jochanaan). When he rebuffs her advances in disgust, she asks her stepfather, Herod Antipas, for John’s head on a silver platter. Salome makes love to the severed head before Herod, revolted, orders her killed.

I have left about 10 other productions of Salome with a shudder, essentially creeped out. Sunngardh inhabited this deranged seductress so thoroughly that the psychological melodrama was elevated to high tragedy, the instability of her character and decadent environment made dramatically discernible, as directed by John Hoomes. The notorious dance of the seven veils scene—the undoing of many sopranos—was thrilling and captivating in choreog- raphy by Kathryn Posin. A critic once described the voice of another Swedish dramatic soprano, the legendary Birgit Nilsson, as a sunbeam hitting an iceberg. Sunngardh’s high range is a shade warmer, but that phrase rings true about her sound. Her singing of the role equaled any ever recorded, which is saying a great deal. Even in the era of Deborah Voigt, Sunngrdh is poised to become the world’s reigning Salome, with any opera company lucky enough to get her.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle made as much of Herodias, Salome’s mother, as anyone possibly could, as an egotistical, scathing and doddering matriarch. Mark S. Doss was a commanding Jochanaan, with ringing top notes. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht, as the page, held her own vocally with these veterans.

Tenor Joel Sorensen was completely miscast vocally and dramatically as Herod Antipas, and left the music and part unfilled out. As Narraboth Eric Johnston sang with odd and troubled sound. Conductor Joseph Rescigno perhaps let the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra play out too loudly at times, but it was a gorgeous sound coming from the pit.


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