06 March 2007

Die Frau ohne Music

Last September I saw the Aurora Theatre’s revival of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. It was like a doughnut, rich and delicious and probably not as healthy as it should be. Also like a doughnut, it had a great big hole in the middle, which was a truly terrible performance of the lead role. Miranda Calderon has probably the greatest name for a performer since Siegfried Jerusalem, and we maybe don’t quite have the culture in which a young woman can weaken a man’s knees by offering to toss him a little green flower, but there’s got to be another way to convey Salome's attractions besides throwing tantrums and badgering the underlings. Her looks are fine, but not really enough to suspend disbelief that anyone would put up with her unrelieved harsh tones. Maybe because I was in Berkeley I kept picturing a slightly drunk sorority girl with an inflated sense of entitlement.

It’s too bad, because the rest of the production made a convincing case for seeing Salome without hearing Strauss. After all, what fades faster than yesterday’s decadence? Mark Jackson, the director, had the cast talk in clipped, stylized tones, which added enough Art Deco vinegar to undercut the overripe jeweled dialogue and renew what the Decadents would have called its strange fascination. Mark Phillips as Jokanaan, half naked for the duration, really did look like a fanatic carved out of white ivory. Best of all was Julia Brothers as Herodias; in fact, by the time Salome’s final monologue rolled around, after an odd, kick-boxy dance, I was so over her that I spent the whole long speech watching the subtle, understated play of expression on Herodias’s face: fear, contempt, horror, and finally amused indifference.

I had prepped by watching once again Nazimova’s 1923 film, one of those extravagant masterpieces of silent-film making. It’s notorious for the sets and costumes based on Aubrey Beardsley and for the rumors that Nazimova insisted everyone involved in the film had to be gay in tribute to Wilde, and also for bombing and thereby pretty much ending Nazimova’s screen career. But if you get past the Hollywood Babylon reputation it’s a wonderful and provocative production, not silly or camp. And Nazimova is fantastic – except for the occasional close-up you wouldn’t believe that the actress was a middle aged woman and not actually a selfishly petulant, seductive teen. And that’s decadence done right.


Civic Center said...

Herodias can easily steal either the play or the opera, neither of which I particularly enjoy. She's also got the best line in the opera: "Der Mond ist wie Der Mond. Das ist Alles," which roughly translates as "The moon is just the moon. That is all." In other words, get over your poetic speeches comparing the moon to everything else in the world, you fools.

My dislike for the piece came from being a supernumerary soldier onstage for the entire opera in the early 1990s at the San Francisco Opera, when Maria Ewing was doing her celebrated interpretation of Salome in her ex-husband Peter Hall's production. That's the one where Ms. Ewing ended the Dance of the Seven Veils in the buff at the front of the stage scaring the front-row orchestra patrons.

The Herodias in that production was none other than the great Leonie Rysanek who knew 400 ways to upstage another performer and during the course of that run we saw at least 200 of them, from fanning herself vigorously whenever Salome had a soliloquy to sauntering over to John The Baptist's cistern and sticking her tongue out at him. We had a very hard time keeping a straight face.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

And here I thought the moon was like a white rose on a silver platter, just like the Princess Salome!

I saw those Salome performances with Ewing (and, apparently, you) -- that was part of the Strauss festival either the summer I moved back home or the one after, which would put it at '92 or '93. I'm embarrassed to admit I forgot that Rysanek was Herodias. Of course, being up in the dress circle I couldn't see as many of her hilarious antics. I think Ewing decided T&A was a good substitute for hitting all the notes.