Chicago Theatre Review
Salome – Ravinia
Recently, Chicago’s intimate storefront theatre, the Right Brain Project, offered a provocative, very creative production of Oscar Wilde’controversial, long one-act play. Drawn from a Biblical story known for its eroticism, gruesome depiction of murder and full nudity following its famous dance of the seven veils, both the play and this operatic version tell the story of Herod’s spoiled, sixteen-year-old stepdaughter and her obsession with John the Baptist. The prophet, imprisoned in an underground cistern by Herod, enchants the Princess Salome with his cryptic pronouncements; but when the young girl attempts to seduce him, John the Baptist rejects her while condemning her adulterous mother, Herodias. To revenge her damaged pride and punish her stepfather for his lascivious behavior, Salome promises to dance for Herod in return for the severed head of John the Baptist.
To honor the composer’s 150th anniversary, Ravinia presents in concert Richard Strauss’ 100-minute operatic version of Wilde’s play. Strauss’ dramatic, challenging score is performed to perfection by the exquisitely talented Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the capable baton of James Conlon. The opera is sung entirely in German, with supertitles and closeups of the singers and featured musicians projected upon two very large flatscreen monitors mounted on either side of Ravinia’s enormous outdoor Pavilion stage.
The cast consists of several extraordinarily talented singers from around the world. Patricia Racette, the much-admired American soprano, brings her full, richly dramatic voice and drop-dead beauty to the title role. The singer’s accomplished performance at the Ravinia Festival will almost act like a dress rehearsal, for the skilled artist will again play Salome in San Antonio in a fully-staged production early next year. Employing only her voice, a few gestures and some well-motivated facial expressions, Ms. Racette mesmerizes in her creation the strong-willed young princess who refuses to be rejected by a man whom she considers her inferior, while being hellbent on teaching her lecherous stepfather a lesson he’ll never forget.
Herod is played by Allan Glassman, stepping in at the last minute for German opera star, Wolfgang Schmidt. Mr. Glassman’s glorious tenor matches Ms. Racette in his command of Strauss’ music, the power of his emotion and, although anchored behind a music stand, his physical involvement with both the story and the other characters. Egils Silins is most commanding in the role of John the Baptist (called Jochanaan both in Wilde’s dramatization, as well as in Strauss’ opera) with his lush bass-baritone. Often unseen and only heard since he’s suppose to be chained in an underground cell, Mr. Silins easily earns everyone’s attention, making it easy to understand Salome’s fascination with this mysterious man. German opera singer Gabriele Schnaut sings the role of Herodias with confidence and skill, but she’s less convincing as Salome’s mother than one would hope. The singer’s emotional involvement is two-dimensional compared with her cast mates. And handsome Joseph Kaiser is simply wonderful in the smaller, but tricky role of the Syrian captain Narraboth. His gorgeous, lyric tenor, soaring high above the orchestra’s accompaniment, is precise and undeniable. It’s evident why this great singer has been seen in so many roles all over the country.
In a play that traditionally relies heavily upon the visual, this concert version becomes an interesting aural experience. The audience is only able to hear this tragic story sung and played by a splendid cast and company of magnificently talented professional musicians, without actually seeing the story enacted. In this concert version there are no sets (just the band shell), costumes (only formalwear), props (no artificial head of John the Baptist) or choreography (no dance of the seven veils, no nudity). It’s like listening to a recording or a radio program in which a sound portrait conveys the entire story. However, it all works beautifully because every element taps into each patron’s imagination, allowing audience members the freedom to create their own mental visuals for this story. Bravo to this entire production!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 2 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Pavilion at Ravinia, Green Bay Rd. and Lake Cook Rd., Highland Park, IL
For more information about Ravinia please visit www.ravinia.org
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.