“The secret of love is greater than the secret of death,” sings Salome, late in Strauss’ opera, preparing to kiss the bloodied mess that is the severed head of John the Baptist. Perhaps the real secret is how deeply all of us look forward to the ending of this story. As a culture, is our similar, real-world fixation with videotaped beheadings of Isis prisoners related to politics, or death? Is there a sexual component to this? In director Daniel Slater’s production at Santa Fe Opera this summer, Freud is God, and a biblical saga of lust, incest and murder is presented through a Viennese, turn-of-the-century lens.

Ryan McKinny (Jochanaan) and Alex Penda (Salome) © Ken Howard
Ryan McKinny (Jochanaan) and Alex Penda (Salome)
© Ken Howard

Jochanaan (John the Baptist) wears glasses and is allowed a desk and unlimited amounts of paper in solitary confinement, where he scribbles like a madman. Salome never dons a veil, but strips to a slip when the time comes to dance. Herod and the five Jews, as well as Narraboth, the suicidal guard, are all outfitted in military splendor, a Downton Abbey version of pomp rather than a biblical one. Oscar Wilde’s play, on which Richard Strauss based his opera, was not exactly designed for the benefit of evangelicals. Christianity is backstory to the psychodrama here, and all the better for it.

The diminutive soprano Alex Penda is not, as Strauss once wrote, describing the demands of  the operatic Salome, “a 16-year-old with the voice of Isolde,” but she is an actor, and a singer who seemed to bloom into the darkness of the role the further into things she got. Standing in her slip and restating her demand for murder, again and again, her singing was as powerful as her dance, which was more trancelike than seductive. In the middle of it, a younger Salome is revealed witnessing the murder of her father at the same desk where Jochanaan sits now, lost in religious fervor. Penda successfully sings on a character journey from the bored, spoiled Princess into a full-fledged monster having a blow-out end to her own life. Throughout, her presence – vocally and dramatically – hits home.

<i>Salome</i> at Santa Fe Opera © Ken Howard
Salome at Santa Fe Opera
© Ken Howard

Ryan McKinny’s Jochanaan was believably sexy in a crazed way, and the seduction scene with Penda found him melting to the floor in the face of her lust, still a heterosexual man in spite of his zealotry. Vocally, he seemed to lack power at the height of things. Brian Jagde’s love-sick guard represented the tenor part strongly through the early part of the opera, although his character’s neat exit by suicide was perhaps never justified musically by Strauss – it seemed to come out of nowhere.

Herod and Herodias, played by Robert Brubaker and Michaela Martens, respectively, were presented by the director as relatively minor players. Martens made the most of it, investing her mezzo with a richness of tone while neurotically scurrying between her daughter and husband – clearly a no-win situation. Brubaker was not believable as a Tetrarch, forced by the director to grovel for Salome’s attention, and then to grovel once again in an attempt to back out of his promises.

Alex Penda (Salome) © Ken Howard
Alex Penda (Salome)
© Ken Howard

If Salome illustrates the iceberg theory of consciousness, that only the tip of our personality is visible to others while a much larger and less explicable world lives beneath, the operatic expression of this is nearly perfectly manifest in Strauss’ score, a rich and sonorous mass of deep beauty. The Seven Veils section, which found the composer laying on turn-of-the-century kitsch, may be jarring, but works in a dramatic context, even if the director of this production decided to go brainy instead of bawdy.

****1