Opera preview: Soprano finally makes her Pittsburgh Opera debut in Strauss’ challenging 'Salome'
November 3, 2016 12:00 AM
Nmon Ford, top, plays Jochanaan, and Patricia Racette plays Salome, in Pittsburgh Opera's production of Richard Strauss' "Salome." The two were photographed at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning in Oakland on Oct. 24.
Soprano Patricia Racette plays Salome in Pittsburgh Opera's production of Richard Strauss' "Salome."
Baritone Nmon Ford plays Jochanaan in Pittsburgh Opera's production of Richard Strauss' "Salome."
Scott Connor, (background) a special effects artist, lifecasts baritone Nmon Ford's head. The mold was made at Tolin FX for Pittsburgh Opera's upcoming production of Strauss' "Salome." Mr. Ford plays Jochanaan, whose head is chopped off in the production.
A mold of Nmon Ford's was made at Tolin FX for Pittsburgh Opera's upcoming production of Strauss' "Salome."
Performer Patricia Racette, left, plays Salome and Nmon Ford plays Jochanaan in Pittsburgh Opera's production of Richard Strauss' "Salome."
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Call it a long-awaited debut.
In 2002, soprano Patricia Racette was going to perform with Pittsburgh Opera for the first time. But a few days after arriving for rehearsal, she pulled out of the production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” for health reasons and personal ones — a throat infection and ongoing grief over her mother’s death a few months earlier.
The production would have represented her first time singing the part of Cio-Cio-San as a fully professional singer. So the soprano remembers her Pittsburgh non-debut with clarity but not with pleasure.
“I almost never withdraw from anything,” said Ms. Racette, 51. “The number of just singular cancellations I’ve had in the past 29 years can probably be counted on one hand.”
“It’s a monster,” said Ms. Racette, who regularly performs at the world’s top opera houses and is a frequent host of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series. “It’s one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever had to learn.”
Sung in German, “Salome” is a psychologically probing, dramatically challenging and musically acrobatic piece, and the roles draw comparisons with Wagner’s muscular characters. That’s especially impressive when you consider that Strauss’ work is only 100 minutes long and has no intermission.
Tickets: $10.75-$159.75, www.pittsburghopera.org or 412-456-6666. $20 tickets for people in their 20s are available for Tuesday’s performance at www.pittsburghopera.org/20Salome.
Based on an Oscar Wilde play and the biblical tale about the execution of John the Baptist, the searing one-act opera examines the dynamics between the teenager Salome, her stepfather King Herod, her mother Herodias and the imprisoned prophet Jochanaan (John the Baptist). In this creepy love rectangle, Herod is drawn to Salome, who uses her sexual power to force the king to behead Jochanaan.
“The time goes by quickly,” said baritone Nmon Ford, who will portray Jochanaan. “You walk in, you sit down, you just get knocked over the head with this thing, and what feels like 20 minutes later it’s over, and there’s a severed head on the ground, and you’re like, what happened? Where’d it go?”
Ms. Racette, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., has played Salome in just one other staged production, at Opera San Antonio, and has sung the music a couple of times in concert. She is scheduled to perform the role in Los Angeles in February and March.
It is no coincidence that the soprano is relatively new to the part. As a regional company, Pittsburgh Opera can’t always cast major artists like Ms. Racette in lead roles. But when artists are new to a character, especially one as challenging as Salome, they might be interested in testing it out at smaller companies before heading to larger stages. In 2008, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe made her role debut as Dalila with Pittsburgh Opera.
“Those are not things where you want your first time to be at the Met or Paris or La Scala,” Ms. Racette said of singing new roles. “It’s good to have some performances under your belt.”
Because there are so few Salomes who successfully navigate the vocal and dramatic demands of the role, Pittsburgh Opera, which hasn’t staged the Strauss opera since 2001, essentially built this production around Ms. Racette.
“It’s time for us to do this seminally important work again, but you don’t think about it unless there’s a Salome, and the second I heard she was doing it, I kept in very close touch with her,” company general director Christopher Hahn said of the American soprano. “Because of the complexities of the role, there are really very few sopranos who are able and willing to take it on.”
From a dramatic standpoint, one of the most challenging aspects of the opera is the Dance of the Seven Veils, when Salome dances and removes all of her clothes for Herod.
“It’s Salome realizing — in some ways for the first time — her power as a female, her power as a sexual being, the ability of that power to manipulate,” Ms. Racette added. “She realizes that in the dance, and I think she’s a changed person after that.”
Some singers historically have outsourced the dance to other performers. Not Ms. Racette, who described such a move as “a phenomenal cop-out.”
“I’m so inhabiting the character that it’s not me, it’s Salome,” she said. “So I don’t feel like I am up there exposing my nudity, but I feel like it’s part of her complex and interesting journey.”
Scored for a big, Straussian orchestra, “Salome” also requires large voices from the rest of the cast. Herod (Robert Brubaker), Mr. Hahn said, is “just shy of a heldentenor,” and even the smallish role of Narraboth (Jonathan Boyd), who dies early in the piece, features several exposed moments.
Jochanaan is sometimes given short shrift. Strauss once referred to the pious prisoner as “an imbecile,” and unlike Salome’s metrically shifting lines, much of John’s music is written in standard 4/4 time.
“It just means that their complexities are laid out for everybody to see as soon as you open the score,” said Mr. Ford, who lives in Los Angeles. “For John the Baptist, I got to dig a little bit. But fortunately there are … layers to peel back.”
And then there’s the matter of Jochanaan’s severed head. Mr. Ford went to a special effects shop to get a mold done of his own cranium, and Pittsburgh Opera has filled it in to reproduce the character’s eyelashes, eyebrows and hair.
“Thank God they did it right,” the baritone said. “Because if you don’t, there’s just nothing like, ‘Here’s the head of John the Baptist, and it looks like Morgan Freeman.’ That’s not going to do it. You’ve got to get the real head.”
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