Saturday was an evening of goodbyes at Orchestra Hall as conductor Andrew Litton brought the curtain down on 15 years as artistic director of Sommerfest, the Minnesota Orchestra’s special season of summer concerts.
It can safely be said that Litton went out with a bang and not a whimper. He made performing operas in concert a hallmark of his Sommerfest tenure, and his choice of “Salome” for a grand finale fulfilled a long-standing desire to bring Richard Strauss’ festering psychodrama to the Twin Cities.
Front and center at Saturday’s performance was soprano Patricia Racette as Strauss’ sexually messed-up antiheroine.
Racette’s was a dominant, indefatigable performance that rose to considerable heights of intensity. She occasionally pushed sharp of the note — forgivable when you have a super-large orchestra venting on stage behind you.
Tenor Dennis Petersen got loud cheers for his leering, comedically styled Herod, pecked to petulance by mezzo Katharine Goeldner as his sequined wife, Herodias.
Pick of the evening vocally was baritone Stephen Powell’s resonantly phrased John the Baptist, a lonely voice of probity in the undrained moral swamp around him.
Gregory Keller’s semi-staging of the opera allowed some interaction between the characters, and a nod toward basic props and accoutrements — champagne flutes and bottles of bubbly were brandished, and religious tracts were passed around the audience.
As happens so often in semi-stagings, however, what was missing in the action was more striking than what was present.
Where, for instance, was the decapitated head of John the Baptist? Salome spends the final moments of the opera gorily drooling over it, but in the absence of the actual physical object, her gruesome kiss was left vaguely to the watcher’s imagination.
And in the infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils,” Racette wavers in a minimalist fashion stage-center, suggesting more the warm-up for a relaxing yoga session than the sexually charged gyrations that drive her slavering stepfather Herod to distraction.
Fortunately the orchestra compensated, painting a wonderfully sleazy picture of the unhinged princess’ dance of dysfunctionality, laced with slinky wind solos.
It was, ultimately, Litton’s and the players’ evening. “Salome” is an enormously complex and demanding score, boasting a gloriously lugubrious heckelphone, semi-crazed xylophone writing, and everything in between.
Litton owned the opera’s sweep and architecture, and at the conclusion of a long, arduous season the Minnesota Orchestra honored his 15 years’ service with playing of thrilling commitment and viscerality.
He will be a hard act to follow, whatever shape the orchestra’s summer programming (currently under discussion) takes in the future.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.