Racette shines in her first Salome, with CSO, at Ravinia

James Conlon
Chicago Tribune

By John Von Rhein  

Richard Strauss knew he was asking the impossible when he created the amoral antiheroine of his third opera, "Salome." The ideal Salome, he wrote, should be "a 16-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde."

To this day, the role is typically cast with vocally heavyweight sopranos who command huge Wagnerian voices with sufficient reserves of power and stamina to survive the strenuous vocal demands of a 90-minute, single-act opera in which the protagonist is rarely silent.

But sopranos of more lirico-spinto than full-fledged dramatic attributes also have enjoyed success in the role: witness Catherine Malfitano and Maria Ewing in recent decades at Lyric Opera.

The latest to do so is the greatly admired American soprano Patricia Racette — a brainy singing actress who's always game for a new challenge — who took on Salome for the first time in her career in a concert version of the Strauss opera James Conlon conducted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Saturday night at Ravinia, in honor of the composer's 150th anniversary.

Racette scored a considerable success, nailing this daunting role in a kind of test-drive for her first fully staged "Salome," scheduled for San Antonio in January. Her gutsy and compelling performance set the seal on a rendition that could hardly have been more gripping. Ravinia surrounded the diva with a strong international cast, conducting that tingled with nerve's-end excitement from first to last, and orchestral playing of lush, sustained intensity from one of the world's superlative Strauss orchestras under a maestro who knows the score inside out.

Because this was a concert rather than a staged performance, there were no sets, no costumes, no props, no fake severed head for Salome to cradle during her ghoulish monologue. Racette discreetly left the stage before the CSO played the "Dance of the Seven Veils" as an abstract interlude. The singers were required to act through their singing, and none managed this better than Racette.

At 49, the soprano may not command quite the freshness of timbre or the steadiness of delivery she once had. The vibrato spreads and intonation tends to sag when pressure is applied to Strauss' biggest climaxes. None of these things got in the way of one's enjoyment of her performance, given Racette's deep commitment to words and music, and her way of creating a mesmerizing character almost entirely through vocal means.

No debauched monster, her Judean princess was a spoiled teenager accustomed to getting her way in everything. Lounging languidly against a pillar at the side of the pavilion during her stepfather Herod's (tenor Allan Glassman, filling in splendidly at the last minute for the indisposed Wolfgang Schmidt) opening scene, Racette's Salome rose fearlessly to her two big scenes.

Each time she demanded that Herod deliver the head of the captive Jochanaan (bass-baritone Egils Silins, booming the prophet's pious platitudes with solidity, authority and plushness of tone) on a silver platter, her chest tones hardened into thrilling, throaty growls. Salome's descent into unabashed blood-lust in her final monologue found her giving everything she had against not only the fevered orchestra but also a couple of pesky helicopters circling Ravinia Park. With help of amplification, she triumphed.

About that amplification. One can understand Conlon's desire to prevent the singers from being drowned out by Strauss' powerhouse orchestra — and none of them ever were. But what thundered from the bank of loudspeakers above the proscenium struck me as overly aggressive, too much of a necessary thing. The dynamic level was, for the most part, confined to loud, louder and loudest, allowing few, if any, subtleties of instrumentation to emerge clearly. Strauss was only half-kidding when he said conductors should play everything except for a few grand climaxes with a Mendelssohnian lightness.

But if vocal-orchestral parity was achieved at a price, it betrayed no inadequacies of casting.

Both Glassman and mezzo-soprano Gabriele Schnaut were wonderfully over the top as Galilee's decadent ruling couple, Herod and his consort, Herodias, who's Salome's mother. Both are experienced interpreters of their roles and both dug into their parts incisively. Glassman limned the dirty old tetrarch's lust and gathering disgust of Salome with lip-smacking fervor, and Schnaut played the aging queen with campy amusement, her sound big if rather hollow.

Joseph Kaiser rose manfully to the tricky role of the Syrian captain Narraboth, much as he had done in the Lyric production of 2006 opposite Deborah Voigt. There was effective support from Rodell Rosel, Mark Schowalter, Adam Klein, John Easterlin, Evan Boyer, Craig Colclough and Renee Rapier. The handling of surtitles and video projections on the pavilion screens was smoothly achieved, and the many telling closeups of Racette (swaddled in a royal purple gown) enhanced the impact of her performance, which drew a resounding and richly deserved ovation.