In the production devised by the Opera Company of Philadelphia's general director, Robert Driver, the opera is given a traditional staging set in the Middle East, the moon crossed by clouds and the air full of moral decay.
It was the vehicle for the local debut of American soprano Cynthia Makris, who is singing the title role around Europe. She has the youth and body for the role and a voice that can cut through the instrumental textures to make its points and shape the character of the amoral and willful princess obsessed by the body of John the Baptist, not his spirit.
Her portrayal, however intense in places and carefully plotted, sometimes made her seem an observer. In her opening scenes, in which she uses her guile to see the prophet, that guile was more talked about in the text than revealed. And in her scene with the prophet, she seemed a little at loose ends sometimes, waiting for her turn to make the smarmy gesture, to touch a hand.
Her dance, for which she is better qualified than most in the role, saw her circle the cistern in which the prophet was imprisoned, pulling off veil after veil and draping them around the neck of the panting Herod. At the end, she danced bare-breasted - indeed, virtually nude - and ecstatically for a hushed audience.
But it was her final scene that was, naturally, her best. In that, she was the psychotic teenager, driven to kiss the lips of the severed head. It was seriously managed while she sang with intriguing, expressive variety. Her voice was sometimes dreamy, sometimes devoid of color, sometimes a trumpet of
exaltation. That was what the cheering from the audience was about at the end.
Around her, able singers built the atmosphere of choking decadence. Diane Curry's Herodias was sung with strength and security. The portrayal was not as clear. John Duykers sang Herod with authority and strong projection, and built a figure sweating and longing for Salome. John Horton Murray made Narraboth a touching victim of Salome's wiles.
The smaller roles were well-sung, with the theological disputes and declarations catching the edge of humor and pathos.
Gregg Baker, as Jokanaan (the John the Baptist role), sang from the cistern with proper command, and was a potent figure onstage. In this version, he seemed tempted a little by Salome's pleadings, a directorial choice that weakens the character unnecessarily.
Conductor Alexander Sander, in his local debut, was a solid guide for an orchestra that, because of the academy's limitations, cannot be large enough, and that sounded tentative in some crucial moments.
Presented by the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Music by Richard Strauss to a German translation of Oscar Wilde's play; directed by Robert Driver; conducted by Alexander Sander; settings and lighting by Boyd Ostroff; costumes by Richard St. Clair.
Narraboth - John Horton Murray
Jokanaan - Gregg Baker
Salome - Cynthia Makris
Herod - John Duykers
Herodias - Diane Curry
Additional performances: 8 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. March 12 and 8 p.m. March 16 at the Academy of Music. Tickets are $18 to $130. Information: 215-928-2110.