A riveting Racette ignites in Met’s “Salome”

Johannes Debus, Patricia Racette
New York Classical Review

It is one of the defining features of live performance that it continues to surprise us. To be an informed listener and attend a concert or an opera without expectations is just about impossible—and those experiences that shatter expectations are often the most rewarding of all.
Patricia Racette provided just that kind of rare experience, starring in a revival of Richard Strauss’s Salome at the Metropolitan Opera. She was not even originally scheduled to sing in this run, and stepped in to replace an ailing Catherine Naglestad.
Yet the veteran soprano had a career night Monday, showing she still has an enormous amount to offer, both musically and dramatically, as an artist. Racette has not had a success at the Met like this in several years–maybe ever. 
Salome’s is not an easy arc to portray. The dramatic action of the opera takes place in a relatively short time, but even so her journey to psychotic breakdown, fueled first by her rejection at the hands of Jochanaan and then by her stepfather’s lecherous abuse, is a long one, and requires constant focus. 
Racette maintained formidable presence throughout and was riveting from first to last. Her performance of the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” was itself a dramatic feat, elegantly styled and fluid choreographed by Doug Varone, pulsing with eroticism.
That strain of the erotic only magnified the deep pathos of the final scene. Salome’s monologue, as she caresses the head of the prophet who spurned her, is a “Liebestod” of sorts, inviting death through dark amorous obsession. Racette’s account was exquisitely crafted, terrifying as she exulted in her grim triumph. Even in these last moments, the bright power of her voice showed no signs of fatigue, and her glimpses of rapture elicited a particular kind of horror—we saw, even in the darkest instant, a sad kind of innocence, a naive love that became a ruinous obsession.
Strutting spitefully as Herod, Gerhard Siegel showed a forceful, aggressive tenor. Though he barked in spots, when he set his mind to it he could bellow forth clear, ringing pitches, and blazing lyrical lines. He was an easy character to revile, clapping his hands and licking his chops, Hutt-like, during Salome’s dance. But as the stakes became more urgent his intensity rose to match, trying desperately to dissuade his step-daughter from her grisly demand for the Baptist’s head. 
Though just a hundred minutes, Salome is no easy conducting assignment. Johannes Debus made an excellent impression in his company debut, leading a tight, disciplined performance of this difficult score. One might have wished for a little more abandon, more Straussian sumptuousness in the most heavily string-laden passages. But when it came to communicating the essential character of the piece, Debus was right on the mark, finding thrilling tension in the lean, hard edges of the score.
Revivals like this one, featuring performances so fresh, don’t come around every week, or even every season—opera lovers would be wise to rush to the box office. Read the rest of the review here