Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson magically conjured beauty from the sordid tale of Richard StraussSalome in Houston, Texas. A land where anything that roams the range, or even plays these days, is likely to have its head served up, severed, on a platter. Buffalo or prophet, the Wild West is easy either way. Salome offers many discouraging words. Probably why Houston Grand Opera aptly rose to the occasion.  

Wilson, the Canadian conductor who hit the international headlines last year, forming a scratch Ukraine Freedom Orchestra, then leading them on a triumphal march through the BBC Proms, to Europe, then on to the USA, was in her element. 

She was doing what I think she does best, paying attention to a wonderful lyrical score, the finer points of which are, more often than not, lost in the onstage mayhem created by bloodthirsty directors of Salome, keen to outdo each other in the sensationalist blood and guts stakes. I saw her approach Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District in exactly the same way at New York’s Met last October. 

Salome is a masterpiece because Strauss wrote the score and the libretto, based on a translation of Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde’s hypersexualised play of the same name. It is a rounded work of art. Compact. One Act. One hour forty-seven minutes run time. Having total control of the work meant Strauss meshed words, music and action without any need to compromise. Coherent. Short lines. Not otiose.

Sure, there is tempestuous sound – blaring brass and thumping percussion aplenty. The overtly demented plot demands that. But Strauss’ trick of suddenly morphing to subtle inflections of harmony and whispering phrases must be heeded carefully and given space if the complexity of the opera is to be understood. 

Any director of Salome has a prodigious task on their hands. Here, Francisco Negrin was setting out first to captivate the audience. He succeeded in securing total involvement. And he created a Salome for today, without resorting to nihilistic Goth modernism. 

Here’s what’s going down. At King Herod’s palace, a young captain, Narraboth, admires the beautiful princess Salome, who sits at the banquet table partying with her stepfather, Herod, and his court. A page warns Narraboth that something terrible might happen if he continues to goggle the princess. 

Narraboth won’t listen. The voice of Jochanaan, a prophet foretelling the coming of Jesus, is heard from a large globe, signifying another world, where he is kept prisoner. He proclaims the coming of the Messiah. Two soldiers comment on the prophet’s kindness – he is courteous to his gaolers – and Herod’s fear of him.

Suddenly Salome appears, disgusted with Herod’s advances toward her, bored by his guests and understanding her stepfather is in awe of Jochanaan. The sepulchrous voice is heard again, up close and personal now, cursing the sinful life of Salome’s mother, Herodias.

Salome asks about the prophet. The soldiers refuse to allow her to speak with him, but Narraboth, unable to resist her, orders that Jochanaan be brought forth from the globe, which revolves to reveal him. At first terrified by the sight of the holy man, Salome quickly becomes fascinated by his appearance, begging him to let her touch his hair, then his skin, and finally his lips. This goes way beyond even Judean prison visiting protocols.

Jochanaan forcefully rejects her. Narraboth, who can’t bear Salome’s desire for the prisoner, stabs himself. Salome, casually not even noticing him, now beside herself with excitement, continues to beg for Jochanaan’s kiss. The prophet tells her to save herself by seeking Christ and retreats back into the globe, cursing Salome.

Herod appears from the palace, looking for the princess and portentously commenting on the strange look of the moon. Herodias responds with a, “it’s just the moon” putdown.  

When he slips in Narraboth’s blood, Herod suddenly panics and hallucinates. Herodias angrily dismisses his fantasies and asks him to go back inside with her, but Herod’s attentions are now focused on Salome. He offers her food and wine, but she rejects his advances. 

From the globe, Jochanaan resumes his tirades against Herodias, who demands that Herod turn the prophet over to the Jews. Herod refuses, maintaining that Jochanaan is a holy man and has seen God. His words spark an unresolvable comic argument among the Jews concerning the true nature of God, and two Nazarenes talk about the miracles of Jesus. Chaos. As Jochanaan continues to accuse her, Herodias demands that he be silenced.

Herod asks Salome to dance for him. She refuses, but when he promises to give her anything she wants, she knows she has him in her power and agrees, once she has made him swear to keep his word. Ignoring her mother’s pleas not to, Salome dances seductively, removing her clothes. The non-biblical Dance of the Seven Veils. In this production it was more the dance of the seven layers of M&S underwear, but we all got the point.

The delighted king wants to know what reward she would like, and Salome innocently asks for the head of Jochanaan on a silver platter. Horrified, the king refuses, while Herodias, who has cottoned on to her sharp daughter’s ploy, laughs approvingly at Salome’s choice. Clever girl!

Herod offers other rewards – jewels, peacocks, half his kingdom – but Salome insists and reminds Herod of his oath. The king finally gives in. As the executioner enters the globe, the princess anxiously and impatiently awaits her prize. 

Here we have a deviation from every other production of Salome I have seen. The prophet’s corpse is brought to her entire and a silver salver shoved unceremoniously under the head. Bizarre. But it does allow Salome to lie down beside and passionately address Jochanaan, as if he were still alive. She finally kisses his lips. The terrified Herod, outraged and disgusted at Salome’s behaviour, orders the soldiers to kill her.

The Spanish director has over 70 productions under his belt, ranging from works by Handel to the modernist Danish composer, Poul Ruders, probably best known in the UK for English National Opera’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

He has done a fine job for Houston Grand Opera. This production firstly provided entertainment – the hedonistic court of the Tetrarch, Herod, contrasting eerily with the horrors to come; the antics of his ghastly trophy wife, Herodias, lambasting him for ogling her 16-year-old daughter, Salome. 

Negrin clearly set out to hook his audience, because then they think. The characters were turned around like jewels, their different facets glinting in the music. Impossible to know what was going to be revealed next. 

Salome’s apparent innocence was morally unsettling, underpinned by a video of her as a child running in the fields projected backstage. Herod was a sexual predator. Then, she slowly morphs into the manipulator with her purposeful use of sexuality to achieve her ends. 

Herodias’ castigation of her daughter, then support for her, egging her on as Salome twists Herod to her purpose was particularly well portrayed. Negrin continued to turn these actors around to see what characteristic catches the light and the audience’s eye. Strauss’ score is used like an electron microscope, penetrating deeply into the disturbed beings. 

Salome was sung by Laura Wilde, an American soprano. To start with she seemed like the girl next door, but as Wilde realised her growing power over Herod she morphed from pre-pubescent girl to determined revolutionary. Rejecting the decadence of her parent’s household she comes to realise the one thing she can do to bring the corrupt edifice tumbling down is to make Herod kill the prophet.

There is a clear read-across to society now. Vacuous party folk, obsessed with their own celebrity, having imaginary car chases around central Manhattan to avoid the paparazzi, seeking privacy through nauseating celebrity. Beware. Strauss is telling you a value system built only through luxury and self-preening breeds self-destruction.

Wilde’s approach was unfamiliar. Subtle. I’m so used to seeing blood-soaked staring eyed loonies portray the princess that, at first, I thought she was undercooking the role.

Au contraire. As the plot unfolded her normality became more menacing as it translated into a conscious obsession. She sang well and gave a convincing account of the role. 

The Wortham Theater complex, home of Houston Grand Opera founded in 1958, is functional rather than spectacular. An efficient opera-mall. The Brown Theater houses 2,400 seats, a large space to fill. On the night, it was packed. Houston Grand Opera now offers a comprehensive “On Demand” HD service. 

Their 23/24 season opens with – for the first time – a world premiere, Intelligence, American composer Jake Heggie’s tenth opera, the thrilling story of a women-run spy ring during the Civil War. Then there are Verdi’s Falstaff, Wagner’s Parsifal, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and, yippy-aye-ay – Roger and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. It is a season full of promise.

No more Strauss for the time being, though. A pity. I would love to see them have a bash at Der Rosenkavalier. As one local critic, D. L. Groover, perceptively wrote: “If there’s another Strauss on the horizon at the opera, let Wilson conduct it, please.” She was brilliant.

And Another Thing!

Post-performance I had a short conversation with Keri-Lynn Wilson. She is refreshingly down to earth, and after her triumph was heading off for a drink with her sister, also a musician. No Judean post opera party for her,

She reminded me that she is conducting Verdi’s La Traviata at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from 10th – 23rd July, before taking to the road again with Ukraine Freedom Orchestra ’23. Reminded, I now have my ticket. Hurry if you want yours. The red and blue dots on the ROH website have almost all gone. 

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