Getting ahead with ‘Salome’

Next time someone says conductors “just wave a stick around,” tell ’em about Nicola Luisotti.

San Francisco Opera’s music director, getting ready for leading his first German opera — Richard Strauss’ 1905 “Salome” — has been thinking about the work for two decades. He has studied the score intensively for two years and recently has been in daily rehearsals — “eating, sleeping, living with the music.”

On the podium, Luisotti will preside over a huge orchestra and a cast of outstanding singers to produce 105 minutes of still-strange, mesmerizing, overwhelming music that’s not “accompanying,” but at the heart of a bizarre, unforgettable story.

After its 1930 premiere in The City, San Francisco Examiner critic Redfern Mason chided New York (where “Salome” had been absent since its American premiere there in 1907), calling it “narrow-minded” because a New York Times critic raged about “ears tortured … and moral fanatics fuming at the immorality and perversity of the music.”

Based on Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play, “Salome” is set in biblical times in the court of the lecherous King Herod, where Salome, the king’s stepdaughter, is infatuated with the imprisoned John the Baptist.

When her advances are refused, she performs the “dance of seven veils” in exchange for the beheading of the prophet, possessing him in death by kissing his severed head.

“It’s night music,” Luisotti says, “about love and death, in a chaotic, thoroughly sick environment — with beauty lighting it up with every mention of Jesus Christ by Jokanaan (John) — a tragedy of noncommunication between all the characters.”

Luisotti, a man of faith, in no way shares the century-old shock over the erotically charged play, or how the story’s scandalous turns are amplified by Strauss’ sinewy music. He sees the tale as a whirlpool of forces relevant to everybody.

The moral, dramatic and musicological complexity of the opera (with chromaticism and bitonality that was startling a century ago) challenges and fascinates Luisotti so much, he says, “I will study ‘Salome’ for the rest of my life.”

Working with General Director David Gockley and opera staff, Luisotti also cast the production, beginning with the title role requiring “someone who is both a girl and a woman, who needs to be a dramatic soprano, a lyric soprano, a coloratura, a mezzo-soprano, all in one.”

He chose German soprano Nadja Michael, whose London performance was called “blazing with dramatic intensity.”

Irina Mishura sings Herodias; Kim Begley, Herod; Greer Grimsley, Jokanaan; and Garrett Sorenson, Narraboth.

IF YOU GO

Salome

Presented by S.F. Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 2 p.m. Oct. 18 and Nov. 1; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21; 8 p.m. Oct. 24, 27, 30

Tickets: $15 to $310

Contact: (415) 864-3330; www.sfopera.com

 

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