REVIEW: Opera Philly and the Philadelphia Orchestra Team Up for Salome

It sounds like a headline ripped from an episode of Nancy Grace or Law and Order: young female necromaniac flaunts her sexuality to get down and dirty with a corpse she’s got the hots for (and you thought opera was boring). But, in essence, that pretty much captures the plot of Strauss’s Salome, which, in it’s sold-out staging at the Kimmel Center, marks the first collaboration between The Philadelphia Orchestra and Opera Philadelphia. The production, which opened Thursday evening, features many solid moments, but the highlight clearly is the daunting performances of Camilla Nylund and Alan Held who play the title character and her soon-to-be dead lover, respectively.

Strauss’s opera, which premiered in 1905, has had its fair share of criticism, scandal, and censorship — much of the controversy was over the infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils” scene, where Princess Salome strips naked in order to fulfill her wish to receive her lover’s severed head on a silver platter. As one can imagine, there’s been more than a handful of divas who have refused to take off their clothes for the sake of high art: a Miley Cyrus concert this is not.

In Kevin Newbury’s production here in Philly, Salome keeps her clothes on, and seven strange steampunk-styled lanterns (think Restoration Hardware sample sale) mounted throughout the lighting rig at the Kimmel are raised up and down throughout the dance. Strange? Yes. Effective? Sort of. I did find it funny to hear the grumbling of a few older men in the lobby after the performance, disgruntled that a more, ahem, “traditional” staging wasn’t used, especially in that particular scene.

But that aside, this Salome, played with dramatic vocal fervor by Ms. Nylund, is a performance deeply impactful and psychologically disturbing. The Finnish soprano, who is making her Philadelphia Orchestra debut with these performances, shows amazing stamina through her oftentimes lengthy and challenging vocal passages. One could argue Salome’s own fatal flaw is her overwhelming sexual desire for Jochanaan, which literally drives her insane. It is a fine balancing act for Ms. Nylund: she’s vocally smart and emotionally savvy.

The same could be said for Mr. Held’s depiction of Jochanaan, the object of Salome’s desire. Never have I heard a voice resonate Verizon Hall like Mr. Held’s, and despite the sometimes overbearing sound of the orchestra that, unfortunately, drowns out several moments of the vocal score throughout the production, the bass-baritone’s vocal passages gorgeously depict his character’s own inner-struggles with fate while his gorgeous tone cuts through to the back of the house.

Mr. Newbury’s staging, which, for all intents and purposes, is a beefed-up concert version of Strauss’s work, is at its best when it is simple: The scenes between Salome and Jochanaan are the most effective and emotionally resonate, as is Salome’s lengthy aria after her “present” is delivered on a silver platter.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the baton of Yannick Nezet-Seguin, plays Strauss’s score with passion and zeal, although, as other critics have pointed out about Yannick’s operatic conducting, the voices of the singers tend to be overpowered by the sheer sound of orchestra.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop this Salome from being psychosomatically gripping: as humans, we’re drawn to the strange, the desperate, the absurd. As Ms. Nylund’s Salome begins kissing the severed head of Jochanaan, we can’t help but notice that we’re in the presence of something that is beautifully disturbing. That alone catches our attention far more effectively than any cable news program or syndicated murder mystery show.

Salome plays again on Saturday, May 10th in the Verizon Hall of the Kimmel Center. For more information, visit the Kimmel Center’s webpage.