Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Feed the Birds

July 07, 2007

All right, I’ll admit it. I just don’t like Salome. I love Strauss, but no matter how I approach it, I just can’t seem to get to this one. I keep thinking I just haven’t seen the right production, but without fail those 90 minutes seem to stretch on for hours. Maybe I just can’t get behind the whole teenage seduction thing. And the setting – urgh – Biblical stuff is almost always a bad idea for most stage directors.

Gabriele Schnaut and Todd Ford in Das Gehege
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007

Needless to say, tonight’s performance of Salome at the Bavarian Opera Festival did little to change my views. It was paired here with a new work by Wolfgang Rihm, Das Gehege, commissioned in part by incoming music director Kent Nagano specifically to be paired with Strauss’ opera. At just over thirty minutes this one-act, one-performer wonder is, if nothing else, interesting. It is very poetic from what my more German proficient friends tell me and it concerns a woman who develops an attachment for a caged eagle that she frees and is simultaneously aroused by and hopeful that the bird will destroy her. She comes to realize the eagle is indifferent to her emotions and she attempts to provoke it into attacking her. Eventually she is successful after much struggle, but now realizing the bird is old and weak, kills it. Yeah, that’s what I though too.

It’s not a bad piece musically. Rihm’s music is enjoyable and textured on first listen, but like this week’s premiere of Chin’s Alice in Wonderland, this is far more of an intellectual exercise than an actual opera. Essentially Das Gehege is Salome streamlined down to it’s most basic psychological elements. All the characters have been eliminated except the central one and Rihm highlights the way that the woman, played here by Gabriele Schnaut, is really acting out her own internal drama on an ambivalent beast. The woman, like Salome wishes for a desire that will engulf her and when confronted with the true nature of that fantasy, she ends up destroying herself. Clever, no? Enjoyable? I’m not so sure.

Angela Denoke and the Cast of Salome
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007

Oh yeah about that Salome. Many of the stomach-turning elements are still intact from the premiere earlier this season including the notorious breast-licking by Wolfgang Schmidt’s Herodes. Angela Denoke, the evening’s Salome, spends virtually the whole time slinking and writhing around the stage like she fell out of an Akon video. It gets old fast. By the time the actual dance scene comes around, about all that is left to do is expose herself. Then there is Jochanaan, played by Alan Titus, whom director William Friedkin develops as his own little personal tribute to John Travolta in Battlefield Earth. The good news here is that he elected not to go with the even more pathetic John Travolta as Edna Turnblad homage. Oh, and the eagle from Das Gehege shows up again for the final third of Salome as some sort of a life-coach, I suppose. Of course that doesn't work out to well.

Really I shouldn’t be so negative. Kent Nagano and the orchestra sounded lovely, and much of the signing was good. It was just so boring for no really good reason. Well, look for more on these topics and others from Munich in the local LA and NY press in the coming weeks – I’ve seen Mark Swed, Alan Rich, and Alex Ross in the last three days alone here in Munich. So keep your eyes posted, maybe they’ll have more positive thoughts about it.

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