Salome

The Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday, September 23.

From the cheap seats of the family circle, soprano Karita Mattila has the vintage Britney Spears act down cold. Closer in, the effect might not be so convincing (she is in her forties), but at a distance, her fidgety, loose-limbed, not-that-innocent bearing is just about perfect. Mattila’s Salome is both sensual and childish, sophisticated and immature, and it’s not always apparent whether she’s truly conscious of the impact she has on those around her.

Even Mattila’s voice has a youthful (though blessedly un-Britney-like) timbre. She dances over Strauss’s slippery melodies with a light, ringing tone that somehow conveys Salome’s quicksilver moods and perverse desires without sacrificing the beauty of her instrument. Her performance is brilliant: provocative and gorgeous and creepy as hell, which makes it ideally suited for the provocative, gorgeous, creepy-as-hell opera.

Works that shocked audiences a century ago tend to seem much tamer today, but Richard Strauss’s Salome is still outrageously lurid, to a hysterical extent. The libretto, adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play (which is none too faithful to the biblical tale), packs incest, sacrilege, nudity, bloodletting, and necrophilia into ninety short minutes. There’s the famous Dance of the Seven Veils, of course, but you also have the teenager overcome with ecstasy as she makes out with Jochanaan’s (John the Baptist’s) decapitated head. Even our Britney never did anything like that.

Jürgen Flimm’s production embraces the opera’s salacious melodrama to great effect. Gleefully trampling over any notions of opera as a prim, stodgy art form, Flimm creates a warped contemporary setting for the Biblical story. The one-act drama takes places on a gaudy patio overlooking rolling desert dunes. The colors are garish and gilded, like a three-dimensional Klimt painting gone to seed, and a sense of doom hangs over everything. Most obviously, black-garbed angels appear on the edge of the sandy horizon whenever Jochanaan is hauled out of his underground prison, but even before the prophet arrives to condemn his captors, the overwhelming decadence of it all hints at looming decay.

Strauss’s score also plays with connotations. Most of the music is thick, late-Romantic stuff—beautiful but dissonant and challenging, too. Jochanaan’s solos, however, tend to be more traditional, both harmonically and melodically. I love the late-Romantic passages (the dramatic orchestration is particularly exciting and vivid), but the contrast Strauss creates does tend to make everyone but the prophet sound hedonistic and dangerous.

The opera is brisk and tightly paced. Soon we reach the famous dance, choreographed here by Doug Varone for the admirably fearless soprano star. Mattila first appears in a tuxedo, looking like Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, before stripping down to lingerie and flying through steps that seem to draw equally from ballroom dancing, pole dancing, and lap dancing. She pulls it off, even ending the extravaganza with a brief show of full-frontal nudity.

You expect that to be the climax of the opera, but then, of course, comes the orgasmic foray into necrophilia. Salome rolls on the ground, clutching Jochanaan bloodied head, her hair dishelved and legs splayed, and Mattila’s voice is breathtaking, and it’s passionate and disgusting and hilarious all at once. On Tuesday night, before an audience that obviously knew what it was getting into, there was still a brief moment of stunned silence when the lights went dark, before everyone burst into riotous applause. That strikes me as about right. Even some hundred years after its premiere, Strauss’s Salome still has the power to shock and dazzle in equal measure.