When Richard Strauss took Salome for the protagonist of his third opera, he came up with an incarnation of the wicked biblical vixen his contemporary Freud would have approved of. Using a libretto distilled from the famously decadent play by Oscar Wilde (who in turn was inspired by Flaubert’s story on the same subject), the upstart opera composer fashioned a neurotic woman-child whose sexual awakening leads to lurid tragedy. Her arousals, wiles, frustrations, and bouts of hysteria are graphically depicted in a richly nuanced, intensely ferocious score that calls for a cast of well-conditioned (and steely nerved) singers and an orchestra of more than 100. The opera’s frankly sexual tone–epitomized by Salome’s necrophilic lust for John the Baptist–caused a sensation during its initial run in 1905, but it’s hardly shocking in an era accustomed to soft-porn shenanigans. However, the ravishing and psychologically astute music remains potent. This staging, which debuted at the Salzburg Festival in 1992, is headlined by notable singers experienced in the lead roles. As Salome, soprano Catherine Malfitano may not convincingly suggest the innocence of a 16-year-old, but she should be able to elicit some measure of compassion for an ostensibly irredeemable character (as she did rather effectively for Giorgetta in Il trittico earlier in the Lyric’s season) she calls “the product of a dysfunctional family.” Besides, unlike some divas, Malfitano isn’t too zaftig for the opera’s visual centerpiece, the Dance of the Seven Veils, choreographed for her by the innovative Lucinda Childs. Playing Jochanaan (John) is Bryn Terfel, a Welsh baritone with a booming voice and a boyish demeanor who’s more likely to be sexy than holy. German soprano Anja Silja (a well-known Salome in her younger days) portrays the haughty and volatile Herodias, Salome’s Mommie Dearest. Luc Bondy, the prominent Swiss regisseur, makes his American debut. Saturday, Tuesday, and next Friday, November 29, 7:30 PM, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker; 312-332-2244.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Catherine Malfitano by John Swannell; photo of Bryn Terfel by John Stoddart.