In the Buff and Boffo

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The New York Sun

When Karita Mattila does “Salome” at the Metropolitan Opera, she goes all the way — that is, she appears stark naked (briefly) at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils. The former general manager of the Met, Joseph Volpe, put a photo of this moment in his memoirs. Ms. Mattila’s striptease is known throughout the operagoing world. Chances are, there are more pairs of binoculars than usual at the Met when she performs “Salome.”

I’m not sure that the “full frontal” adds anything (except notoriety). And Ms. Mattila’s nudity should not be allowed to cover the fact that she is an extraordinary Salome, all the way around: vocally, theatrically. In whatever role she takes on, she is a true “singing actress,” as people say. This is perhaps especially so when she is Salome.

She again appeared in this role on Tuesday night, when the Met revived Strauss’s opera in the Jürgen Flimm production.

Ms. Mattila, a Finnish soprano, looked more like Marilyn Monroe or Kim Basinger than a Middle Eastern princess. But she was unquestionably Salome. She sang capably, although she was willing to sacrifice some vocal elegance or precision for the sake of dramatic passion. Sometimes, particularly on higher notes, her voice is pillowy and indistinct. Also, she did some sharping, which is a tradition in Northern Europe.

But Ms. Mattila is not to be found in particulars: She is a total, operatic package. In her portrayal, Salome is meshugge from the beginning, which I suppose is right. For my taste, her seven-veils dance is too trashy and not exotic enough — too Vegas and not mysterious or seductive enough. But hey: It certainly works.

The Final Scene — a mad Liebestod — is one of the great, mind-blowing stretches of opera. On Tuesday night, Ms. Mattila could have used more voice for the climax: “Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst.” But she earned her ovation. Ms. Mattila’s Salome is one of the outstanding portrayals in opera today.

Portraying Jochanaan was another Finn, Juha Uusitalo, a bass-baritone. He has a Jochanaan-like voice — large, rich, and commanding. He did some rough singing, which included some tremulousness and inaccuracy. And, on lower notes, it was hard to hear him over Strauss’s orchestra (which is often the case with Jochanaans). But he filled the bill. And it was to his credit that he sang angry or emphatic words without barking.

As Herod, Kim Begley, the British tenor, was dressed in an all-white suit, looking like Boss Hogg from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” In his singing, he was somewhat pinched and scattershot. But he was completely convincing.

And a special treat of the evening was the Herodias of Ildikó Komlósi. She is a Hungarian mezzo, and her Herodias was a fascinating wreck, drinking away her problems. What are her problems? Well, for one thing, her husband’s got it bad for her daughter. Vocally, Ms. Komlósi was highly impressive, sending piercing, imperious tones throughout the house. An interesting and even exciting Herodias.

You had to look at Ms. Mattila, needless to say. But it was also hard not to look at Ms. Komlósi.

“Salome,” short as it is, is a crowded opera, requiring a swarm of singers. The Met had good ones. Joseph Kaiser, a tenor, was a beautiful-voiced Narraboth, and Lucy Schaufer, a mezzo, was likewise beautiful as the page. And the Jews — five of them (and numbered that way) — made a stereotypically quarrelsome bunch.

Frankly, it was a bit unsettling to see a stereotype so bald — side locks and all.

Leading the performance in the pit was Patrick Summers, who makes his usual home at the Houston Grand Opera. You have heard more rhapsodic and flavorful accounts of “Salome.” For instance, when Lorin Maazel is on, the piece is so charged, you almost have to towel off. But Mr. Summers knows that the eroticism and excitement of this opera lie in the score — and he essentially let it be itself. He tried no tarting up. And the music had its natural squirminess, anxiety, and strangeness.

In sum, Mr. Summers was unobtrusively effective.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played up to its standard, with the brass deserving special commendation: Like the players in the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics, the Met brass can produce a big, big sound without blaring.

As for “Salome,” it remains an amazing work, after a hundred years. It always will. Strauss referred to his spacious home in Garmisch as “the House that ‘Salome’ Built” — the show brought in a lot of money, and why not? It is one of the most shockingly sensual and carnal works of art ever made. Strauss’s interior life must have been extraordinary — and he knew the composer’s craft.

The New York Sun

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