Opera Warhorses

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Review: Penda, McKinny, Brubaker, Jagde Impress in Daniel Slater’s Psychiatrically Searing “Salome” – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2015

August 1st, 2015

The Santa Fe Opera presented Richard Strauss’ “Salome” in an intense production by English director Daniel Slater.

Alex Penda’s Salome

The performance starred Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda. Her chilling portrayal plumbed the tenets of Freud’s revolutionary theories of human depravity.

Assaying one of the most demanding of dramatic soprano roles after a distinguished career in the bel canto operatic repertory [see The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Stephen Lawless’ “Maria Stuarda” in Toronto – May 4, 2010], Penda exhibited a voice that is beautifully expressive with a firmly controlled pianissimo and that is capable of explosive power when expressing Salome’s impatience or rage.

[Below: Alex Penda as Salome; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


At the 2014 Santa Fe Opera Festival, Penda, singing the role of Leonore/Fidelio [see Review: A Finely Crafted “Fidelio” from Stephen Wadsworth – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2014.], Penda demonstrated an affinity for the German dramatic soprano repertory. Her success as Salome suggests she is ready to take on a range of Strauss soprano roles.

Refocusing “Salome”

Daniel Slater’s presentation of the work de-emphasizes the Biblical roots of Oscar Wilde’s poetic drama that Strauss chose for his earliest enduring success and most shocking of his operas. Slater shifts the story to the end of the 19th century when Sigmund Freud published his principal expositions of his theories.

[Below: the Syrian captain Narraboth (Brian Jagde, below left, kneeling) observes Salome (Alex Penda, seated, fifth from right) at dinner; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


In doing so, the depravity that Wilde in his drama and Strauss in his music intended to show, is transformed into a Freudian explanation of what exists deep in Salome’s subconscious. Much of that Slater reveals for us in the extended orchestral passage that we know as The Dance of the Seven Veils.

[Below: Salome (Alex Penda, right) knowingly manipulates the lustful desires of Narraboth (Brian Jagde, left) and Jokanaan (Ryan McKinny, center) leading to the deaths of both men; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


We as the audience observe Salome from two different perspectives. We first observe her behavior towards the other principal characters, Narraboth (tenor Brian Jagde), John the Baptist or Jokanaan (baritone Ryan McKinny), Herod (tenor Robert Brubaker) and Herodias (Michaela Martens).

In Slater’s production, we also observe Salome’s through the perspective of her unconscious, from which the veils hiding a childhood of terror and abuse are being stripped one by one.

Brian Jagde’s Narraboth

The first character to succumb to Salome is the Narraboth (Brian Jagde). Casting Jagde –  as the Syrian captain who dangerously obsessed by the princess’ sexuality – was a brilliant choice. His Narraboth is physically handsome and vocally impressive.

[Below: Obsessed with lust for  Salome (Alex Penda, right), Narraboth (Brian Jagde, center), disobeys strict orders by permitting her access to Jokanaan (Ryan McKinny, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera. ]


Jagde’s gleaming spinto  voice has made him a “must-have” tenor for Puccini’s great leading roles, and such parts as the Prince in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” (January 2016 at the Houston Grand Opera) and as Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen” (May-June 2016 at the San Francisco Opera.

Ryan McKinny’s Jokanaan

Ryan McKinny, in his Santa Fe Opera debut season, continues to augment what is already an impressive repertory for a young dramatic baritone. The growth in McKinny’s vocal resources is complemented by an accomplished acting style.

In recent months he has taken on the roles as varied the Dutchman [Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013], Rigoletto [Dramatic, lyrical and powerful: Ryan McKinny’s Rigoletto Role Debut – Houston Grand Opera, January 24, 2014], Stanley Kowalski [A Theatrically Brilliant “Streetcar Named Desire” Stars Fleming, McKinny, Tappan and Griffey – Los Angeles Opera, May 18, 2014] and Billy Bigelow [Review: Ryan McKinny Stars in Affectionately Mounted “Carousel” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2014 ].

[Below: Salome (Alex Penda, left) is a disconcerting presence to Jokanaan (Ryan McKinny, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera. ]


In Slater’s reconceptualization of “Salome”, John the Baptist’s persona seems rather more that of a pioneer clinical psychiatrist than that of a New Testament mystic, with powerful effect. He has a link to Salome’s father. The room in which he is imprisoned was the very room in which Salome’s father also spent his last days.

Robert Brubaker’s Herod and Michaela Martens’ Herodias

The power couple, Herod and Herodias, share a dysfunctional marriage and often antagonistic political strategies. Herod understands the danger to him should the blood of Jokanaan be on his hands, while Herodias recognizes Jokanaan as her personal enemy who must be destroyed.

[Below: Herodias (Michaela Martens, left) attempts to persuade Salome (Alex Penda, right) to do her bidding; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Brubaker’s Herod has a backstory that is revealed to us in stages as the veils of Salome’s subconscious are revealed in tableaux and pantomimes, accompanied by Strauss’ seductive dance music.

Herod is responsible for the death of Herodias’ husband and Salome’s father. Once married to Herodias, Herod commences the raping of the child stepdaughter.

Both of the portraits – Brubaker’s Herod and Martens’ Herodias – were memorable and sobering. Salome’s traumatic childhood in Slater’s staging provides an explanation of the Salome’s crippling psychoses.

[Below: Herod (Robert Brubaker, right) attempts to persuade Salome (Alex Penda left) to engage in a sensuous dance for him; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Other Cast Members

Pennsylvania mezzo-soprano Megan Marino was impressive as the Page.

Alabama bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee and Maine bass Tyler Putnam were the Soldiers, Washington bass-baritone Peter Tomaszewski was a Cappadocian, New York tenor Daniel Bates a Butler. The two Nazarenes were sung by Chinese bass Peixin Chen and Canadian tenor Adrian Kramer.

The lively disputes of the five Jews were well-sung and effectively performed by Texas tenor Christopher Trapani (First Jew), Lebanese tenor Roy Hage (Second Jew), Georgia tenor Cullen Gandy (Third Jew), Kansas tenor Aaron Short (Fourth Jew) and District of Columbia bass Kevin Thompson.

Conductor David Robertson (who also conducted the 2011 revival of Slater’s production of Berg’s “Wozzeck” at Santa Fe), achieved a rich and seductive sound from the augmented Santa Fe Opera Orchestra.

[Below: Salome (Alex Penda, lying on table) kisses the severed head of Jokanaan; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The Visual Presentation

The sets and costumes were created by English designer Leslie Travers. They reflect Central European fashions at the end of the 19th century.

A patterned grey wall forms the backdrop for much of the opera, but at key points, a rectangular opening reveals a room in which takes place, early in the opera, Herod’s formal dinner and later, in place of the Seven Veils dance, the exploration of Salome’s subconscious.

[Below: Salome (Alex Penda, left) lies drenched in blood as an image of her as a child  is seen at the right; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]



I recommend this cast and production enthusiastically to the lover of German opera in general and Richard Strauss in particular, to the adventuresome, and to those who wish to see intelligently conceived innovations in the staging of familiar operas.


For my reviews of other productions by Daniel Slater, see:  A Second Look: The “Lohengrin” Experience at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, October 28, 2012and also, 

Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009, and also,

“Wozzeck” for the Connoisseur: Richard Paul Fink Stars in Impressive Santa Fe Opera Revival – August 3, 2011.

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