Deborah Voigt is fabulous. She's one of those once-in-a-lifetime performers on an imagined performing arts bucket list. Like Alan Cumming in Cabaret, or Joshua Bell on violin (who will be at the Winspear next week, coincidentally). And if you're going to see Voigt, you'll want to see her singing Strauss, or Wagner. Her soprano voice sails as Wagner's Brünnhilde, which she sang as part of the Met's Ring Cycle, resonating with an elegant strength that makes her irresistible. She's been singing Strauss since the early 1990s, and in The Dallas Opera's Salome, onstage through November 8, she sings the titular role with such tenacity that you'll believe her as the cunning vixen, age limitations be damned.
An amalgam of Biblical story, historical accounts, and Jewish lore, the legend of Salome became a concise narrative thanks to Oscar Wilde, who wrote a play about the sexy minx who danced for Herod in exchange for the head of John the Baptist. In 1905, Richard Strauss rendered it into a one-act opera about the feisty, flirtatious Salome. When it debuted it was a progressive opera, filled with discordant melodies. It followed in the wake of Wagner's epic operas and Puccini's succulent beauties. It is neither epic nor classically beautiful. In fact, in Alex Ross' book, The Rest is Noise, he writes that Puccini himself attended a performance to hear the "terribly cacophonous thing." Rumor has it, that teenaged Hitler attended that same performance. It was an opera on the verge of something new. Oh, and it had sex appeal. It's also the first opera with a striptease.
While the music is complicated, the plot is not. Salome is the local beauty queen. She gets what she wants. Herod Antipas has an inappropriate crush on Salome (her mother married him after divorcing his half-brother, Salome's father). Salome wants John the Baptist, who is too devout for that nonsense. He spurns her. She bargains with creepy Herod Antipas, whom she dances for and then demands the holy man's head on a platter. Then, she makes out with said head. Talk about twisted.
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The Dallas Opera production is a dazzler. Scenic designer Peter J. Davison's set is a hazy dream of plastics, with a massive nearly pellucid curtain obscuring a traditional Roman archway. In the foreground, a latched, circular manhole contains the prisoner. It's a visual feast, lit with jewel tones, filtered into a halo around the lustful ongoings. And from below echoes the bewitching bass-baritone of Greer Grimsley as the piously doomed.
Here's the thing about opera: Unlike film, or even theater, opera is an art form uprooted from realism. You don't believe Voigt is a young, sexy vixen, just like you don't believe that a bunch of Jews were playing out their life in German arias. It's not about fitting into the little black dress, or being a tall, leggy blonde. It's about the appeal of the voice. And Voigt's voice is a stunner. But Salome is famous for the "Dance of the Seven Veils" - a section in the opera in which the voice can't distract from the movement. In some productions, a conduit of Salome performs this dance; in this production Voigt struggles through it herself with four more adept dancers surrounding her. It's not awkward because she's older, or too Romanesque for contemporary sexy criterion; it's awkward because she can't dance. Which would be a minor flaw in most operas, but this dance is a cornerstone in the work, so it doesn't go unnoticed.
You'll forgive her though, because she's Deborah Voigt and you came to see her. She'll seduce you with her voice, with which she gives a performance you won't soon forget. And the orchestra, conducted by Evan Rogister, ain't so bad either.
Salome performs three more times through November 8. Tickets available at dallasopera.org.