Bring Me The Head Of The Concept Designer

I mean, for several minutes there at the beginning of the final aria, I was starting to think that — for eighty-six dollars, yet — I wasn’t going to get any head at all.

I’m not sure if it was down to the director or the concept designer, who had already done a good-some bad-some job of visuals for the Virginia Opera’s Salome whoever had decreed that the silver charger on which the head of John the Baptist was presented should remain covered until Salome was most of the way through her apostrophe. There was a far too long moment of uncertainty over whether they had cheaped out on the properties at the last minute, and were just going to wait till the moment when the stage is supposed to go dark before Salome kisses the head on the lips, and make a clanking noise with the dish cover, like you hear through the doors behind a steam-table line.

Instead, to their credit, they had pungled up a pretty good prop head — convincingly like the baritone who sang the role of the Baptist — and, better late than never, Salome got her chemise good and bloody with it. You were just left with the dissonance of her wondering aloud “Why do you not look at me, Jochanaan?” when it was damn obvious why he wasn’t looking at her, dead or alive, with the lid still on the tureen and all.

Concept productions always annoy me a bit even when I like them. This one jarred us all nicely with sets and costumes lifted from Iraq or Syrian war coverage on the nightly news — desert camo on the soldiers and rubble around the rust-hazed bunker entrance that stood in for John the Baptist’s cistern. It gave a frisson to lines like

Rejoice not thou, land of Palestine, because the rod of him who smote thee is broken. For from the seed of the serpent shall come forth a basilisk, and that which is born of it shall devour the birds.

The Baptist himself emerged into the light swaddled in a black hood and chains that recalled Abu Ghraib, and it worked; it worked when Salome snatched away the hood to reveal the bearded and bespectacled countenance of a Talmudic scholar.

But why, oh why, just because this opera is scandalously erotic — the text is made over verbatim into German from Oscar Wilde’s extravagantly affected, stylized 1891 play — must we have Salome humping her own arm (while the Baptist is haranguing her to go find Jesus) and, later, his prison door? Admittedly the last was an impressive feat since it required her to chin herself a fair way up off the stage. For a moment I really thought she was going to vault to the top. I love a good athletic stage performance but really, at times, less is more. They should have saved the verismo for the end, where, instead of having “the soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields Salomé, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judæa” — an action which is explicit in music like abrupt, irregular blows — the whole stage is bathed in red like a disco and large flakes of what might be an acoustic ceiling rain down on the lustlorn Princess, the horrified Herod Humbert Humbert, and his royal wife.

And see, that’s what happens when you let a concept design mentality run away with you. Update to the twenty-first century and the soldiers have no shields with which to get the job done. The Engineer speculated on the way out that rifle butts would have worked, which I think they would if you did interrupted lighting as a trompe d’oeil so the soprano could come out of it in one piece. I notice that people tend to edge away from us when we are having these kinds of conversations.

Never mind. It’s my favorite opera, the singers were the best I’ve ever heard in a regional company*, and I can’t think of a spiffier Valentine’s date — mwah to my brave little engineer, who drove us there through what threatened to become a whiteout almost as soon as we left my driveway. If it had just been Pagliacci or even Traviata I would have asked him to turn back.

Here’s the opera company’s quick Idiot’s Guide to the libretto, if you don’t know the show.


*I do have a sort of litmus test for the sopranos. Just before kissing the severed head, Salome sings that “the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death,” in German declension two syllables, Todes, and that last note is an F sharp below middle C which even some altos emit as an unmusical moan; if the soprano can get that, she has my respect. Even some of the big names can’t nail it so the Virginia Opera’s principal in this production is forgiven for an almost inaudible vibration.

Here is Karita Mattila in 2008 at the Met, getting it spot on at about 3:46:


4 thoughts on “Bring Me The Head Of The Concept Designer

  1. Mattila can really sing—it’s such an amazing instrument. What a nice V-Day present, despite its dissectably entertaining flaws. I will admit that I cannot read the Wilde text in either English or its original French without wanting to laugh myself sick…but I do like the Strauss. I’ll be going to see “Ariadne auf Naxos” in Seattle in a couple of months…I’ll be interested to see whether they pull it off. My voice to text feature memorably converted the title to “Ariadne off Snacks, So” when I was telling Josh about the upcoming season, and ever since, I’ve thought of it as an opera about dieting.

    • I picture the Harlequin singing “eat, eat, child, you’ll feel better.”

      There’s something about German that makes even melodramatic overkill seem plausible and spine-tingling. Cf. Wagner.

  2. So much to agree with here. I enjoy seeing creative interpretations of works but I hate it when a two-eyed Wotan explains to Fricka that he gave up an eye to woo her or when Siegfried hands Hagen the reins to an imaginary Grane. Like, don’t the designers read the script?

  3. No. They’re preoccupied being too clever by half.

    Just once, I want to see one of the old fashioned productions with opulently painted sets in receding perspective and exhausting detail that were the thing a century ago.

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