Just when we as a listening public think we’ve got an opera figured out, having seen it staged within certain seemingly fixed boundaries time after time, a production comes along that makes us think again. Alternative readings can be a revelation (when they convince) or slightly off-putting (when they don’t), and the Dallas Opera’s recent Salome, while exceptionally performed, never quite crossed the divide from odd to brilliant.

A dystopian tale of murder and eroticism, Salome is an opera in which it’s hard to find any lightness of spirit. The opera’s two most famous sequences – the “Dance of the Seven Veils” Salome performs for her lecherous stepfather, and the finale in which she kisses the severed head of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) – are not much more twisted than the rest of the opera, and most productions stick with a bleak reading of this depravity. I found the Dallas Opera production this weekend at its most effective when the music itself dictated this kind of fever pitch, but was ultimately unconvinced by the attempt at a lighter touch in the remainder of the work.

Visually, this was an impressive affair. The sets and costumes by Peter J. Davison and Anita Yavitch for the Washington National Opera, which owns this production, were modern without being gimmicky. From the reflective silver floor, a transparent vinyl sheet rose to the ceiling, separating Herod’s palace (represented by a banquet table plus a façade and several columns) from the area surrounding Jochanaan’s pit. Guards clad in black leather, a gun-toting page, and colorful outfits for the remaining roles emphasized character traits that aren’t given much time to be properly introduced in this opera’s single 95-minute act.

Musically, too, this Salome was a great success. Deborah Voigt’s appearance in the title role marked her Dallas Opera debut, and she was a commanding presence. Susan Bickley and Robert Brubaker both matched character type to vocal quality, and handled their roles with aplomb, and tenor Scott Quinn was marvelous in an Italianate portrayal of the Captain of the Guard, Narraboth. Most impressive was bass-baritone Greer Grimsley. His Jochanaan, sung with uncommon power and clarity and brought to life with an imposing stage presence, had real moral authority. (The lesser roles were generally solid as well, some sketchy German diction aside.) Add to such vocal brilliance an orchestra that was by turns seething, impeccably precise, and almost unbearably lush, and a conductor (Evan Rogister, another company debut) with the musical intellect and knack for pacing that this music demands, and the result was an evening that left the ear with little to be desired.

A number of the unconventional touches in this production came off quite nicely. The curtain rose before the orchestra had even tuned, giving a sense of being “behind the scenes”. This was a clever device for two reasons: for one, Salome has no overture, so it became a creative way to start things off; and, more meaningfully, this was the first of several allusions to voyeurism, to watching and being watched (as the audience was forced to do, with no music yet to hear). More pervasive and disturbing was the presence of silent onlookers, semi-hidden behind the vinyl curtain. The sight of this second audience hovering throughout the proceedings of nearly the entire opera suggested we consider our own role in watching the opera, and think twice about the moral ground on which we stand when judging the actions of Salome and those around her.

The audience’s reactions – nervous laughter when Salome sang “I am in love with your body, Jochanaan”, more chuckles at Herod’s “Dance for me, Salome” – at first struck me as missing the point, but I realized as the opera wore on that humor was, in fact, part of the point. Ms Voigt’s Salome was too majestic, her hyper-emotional lines sung with such poise, that she wasn’t haunting but rather an emotional anchor around which the other characters revolved. Herod’s drunkenness was played up in a comedic rather than menacing way, which made his ranting at Herodias and her insults hurled at him in return seem more like charmingly dysfunctional sitcom parents than Sodomites beyond salvation. Moments rife with dramatic potential were passed over, such as when Salome, after dancing for Herod, addresses him for the first time using his name instead of the generic “Tetrarch” she used before. Instead, gestures were exaggerated and some characters made benignly goofy. Perhaps there is lightness to be found even in a work as dark as Salome, but the Dallas Opera didn’t convince me to abandon tradition just yet.