Salome returns to tumultuous welcome

The Canadian Opera Company’s co-production of Richard Strauss’s Salome returned last night in the first of seven performances to huge applause. It’s a star vehicle for Ambur Braid in the title role, a wonderful first outing for Michael Schade as Herod, surrounded by a brilliant cast and another brilliant reading from Music Director Johannes Debus at the helm of the COC orchestra.

Sometimes opera forces one to compromise, settling for someone who looks the part but can’t sing it, or sings it but doesn’t look right. Braid seems to be on the verge of a Maria Callas career, in a voracious portrayal of nuance and vulnerability. As with Callas I’m wondering if there’s anything she can’t sing, if she has Isoldes in her future, having so far not shown us any limits to her vocal development, a genuine stage animal who seems to love performing. I want to see her in the roles requiring dramatics such as Lulu or Kundry.

Michael Schade was her perfect foil, finding all the grotesque comedy as Herod. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, the lovechild of Dr Evil and Elton John. Someday I’d like to see his Mime (in Siegfried) or the Captain (in Wozzeck). His piercing tenor and frenetic energy seemed unstoppable.

Herod (Michael Schade), Herodias (Karita Mattila) and Salome (Ambur Braid). Photo: Michael Cooper

At the end I identified with the disgust displayed by Herod, who could well be the walking presence of the composer himself, the Gesamtkunstwerk that must murder its heroine that it made. Herod is like Frankenstein and the “monster” Salome (as he calls her) is largely his creation (even if he blames Herodias). All that beautiful music leads to the brutal explosion of noise that ends the work, a most satisfying resolution: all passion spent.

In the latest version of director Atom Egoyan’s ongoing relationship with Salome, the mise-en-scène is the other big draw, Salome’s dance a highlight of the evening whether or not you buy into the director’s explanations (I don’t): but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the opera.

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2023, photo: Michael Cooper

Michael Kupfer-Radecky as Jokanaan and Karita Mattila as Herodias were excellent imports alongside a mostly Canadian cast. Robert Pomakov, Michael Colvin and Jacques Arsenault manage to reconcile their comic roles in Marriage of Figaro to an entirely different style in Salome. Frédéric Antoun as Narraboth, alongside Carolyn Sproule as Herodias’s page, were heroic in the extraneous drama they’re called upon to enact upstage of the main action (perhaps the most egregious yet ultimately harmless transgression against the text inflicted by the director). Vartan Gabrielian was an impressive soldier, his deep voice resounding beautifully. I wish at a time when so many Canadian artists are struggling to make ends meet that the COC would always try to employ them, singers who were all terrific: rather than casting foreigners in the small parts.

The other main attraction for me is the COC orchestra, Debus leading a tight quick reading that accords with what I understand about the composer’s own preferences. The opera sounds amazing and looks beautiful. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing it again.

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