One of Boston's most treasured rituals is being shown off at the Opera House this week and next. An exhibition of matrons, clothes, and jewelry comparable to a museum display can be viewed daily between the acts of any of the operas which the Metropolitan is putting on during its current stand.
Met productions too often leave one with memories of fashion on the promenade and little else. But Thursday night's performance of Richard Strauss' "Salome" was a very different story, and a very wonderful one. Singers and orchestra combined under Fritz Reiner's direction to give a really superb reading of Strauss' score and incidentally proved that "Salome" is an unusually fine opera which deserves far better treatment than the austere neglect it received until the Met's revival last month.
Perhaps the principal reason for "Salome's" infrequent appearance is a title role which is almost prohibitively hard to sing. The part requires not just a fabulous voice, but also the ability to carry off convincingly a highly dramatic role, one which requires everything from kissing a severed head to dancing a modified strip tease. Ljuha Welitseh's performance was a real virtuoso triumph, which makes it easy to understand how, in two months, she has risen from anonymity to become the Met's leading prima donna.
But there was equally fine singing from two other principals. Joel Berglund was magnificent as Jokanaan, the prophet, whom Salome has decapitated in her insane effort to kiss his "ruby-red mouth." And as for Kerslin Thorborg, I only wish she had more to do in her portrayal of Herodias, King Herod's wife. What she did sing was superb.
Frederick Jagel as King Herod was the only disappointing member of the cast. Neither his singing nor his acting, which consisted of two dizzy pirouettes across the stage, was anywhere near so effective as the performances of other players. But even this "low" would be pretty high in a less extraordinary performance.
"Salome" is an extremely orchestral opera, with a great deal of writing for brass and woodwinds. It was a treat to hear the Met Orchestra, which at times finds no difficulty in muffling simple oom-pah-pah accompaniments, perform such a difficult score so well.
The extremely chromatic harmony, which in Strauss' tone poems often becomes banal and boring, hardly ever ceased to be interesting during Thursday's "Salome." Credit for this, belongs largely to Conductor Reiner. His interpretation was characterized by careful restraint, with the result that the final climaxes were completely overpowering.
"Salome" contains many construction and orchestration devices which are seldom found in the earlier Italian operas. For example, Strauss makes some use of the "leitmotif," (a melody with a specific connotation) which is so conspicuous in Wagner's operas. One particularly striking example is the theme which usually accompanies the religious statements of Jokanaan, and which later appears greatly distorted, after his decapitation. Another use of this device, combined with an intentional and effectively weird orchestration is found in Salome's several repetitions of the phrase "give me the head of Jokanaan."
I could go on listing many more things, such as the excellent, if at times somewhat forced, staging, which combined to make the Met's production of "Salome" such a memorable event. But the overall boss, the man who took the individual stars and orchestra and co-ordinated them, the man directly responsible for putting over "Salome" was Fritz Reiner. His work during the performance was prodigious. Here was a conductor really running the show, in the pit and on the stage.
Puccini's "Gianni Schicci" was the opener in Thursday night's double bill. But nobody minded that, after hearing "Salome."