Wineke: Severed head stars in Madison Opera


MADISON, Wis. — The severed head of John the Baptist turned out to be the star of Madison Opera’s performance of “Salome” last weekend.

Which is quite a feat since, once severed, the head doesn’t sing a word.

Salome, sung by soprano Amanda Majeski, does sing, sing remarkably well, and is the saving grace of this remarkably weird opera.

The opera, composed by Richard Strauss and first performed in Dresden in 1905, purports to tell the biblical story of the execution of John the Baptist by Herod the king in Mark 6.

Just for the record, the biblical story isn’t anything like the opera story but, then, neither is a historical record. Just to mess things up, the libretto is based on a play by Oscar Wilde, a celebrated 19th-century writer who went to jail for being a homosexual.

At any rate, here’s the story as portrayed by Madison Opera’s talented cast:

Jochanaan (John the Baptist) has been imprisoned in a cistern by Herod as the opera begins and he – offstage – is singing condemnations of the ruling family.

His stepdaughter, Salome, leaves a family dinner and appears onstage, is intrigued by what she hears, and demands that Jochanaan, sung by Craig Irvin, be freed.

When Jochanaan comes up from the cistern, Salome does everything she can to seduce him (this is definitely not in the biblical version of the story) and is scorned by the baptist who is outraged by her lewd behavior. Back to the cistern he goes.

Immediately, Herod (Dennis Petersen) and Herodias (Lauren Decker) appear on stage and it becomes apparent that the king has a thing for his stepdaughter and his wife is not happy about it.

Herod begs Salome to dance for him, offering her anything her little heart might desire if she will do so.

Salome performs the famed “Dance of the Seven Veils” (which is also not in the Bible) – a dance which did not in any way seem sensual to me – and Herod is hooked. He again offers her anything and she insists that what she really wants is the head of Jochanaan on a silver platter.

And that’s what she gets, a severed head dripping with blood. She sings to the head and kisses it. Herod, who at long last seems to have developed morality, orders her killed and the curtain drops.

As I said, weird, but enjoyable. And, to be fair, I have friends who say this was the best production they’ve ever seen by the Madison company, so, as always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Majeski was in great form, not only in voice but in acting. If you’re sitting in the audience in the large Overture Hall it is difficult to actually see the facial expressions of actors on stage but Majeski emoted a coquettish countenance that brought the audience on stage.

Irvin’s baritone, for some reason, seemed far richer in the cistern than it did on stage, but it was a good performance.

And the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which played nonstop for almost two hours, brought a seemingly light touch to contrast the Germanic vocal score.