Sunday, February 17, 2002


From left, Kristine Ciesinski is Salome, James Cornelison is Narraboth and David A. Okerlund is Jokanaan in the Hawaii Opera Theatre production of "Salome" at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

Passionate ‘Salome’

Repeats 4 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.
Tickets $27 to $95. Call 596-7858.

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

There was nothing usual about Director Henry G. Akina's bizarre and fantastical production of Strauss' "Salome," which reached a new level in the history of Hawaii Opera Theatre.

Each aspect -- the design, costumes, lighting, staging, singers, orchestra -- excelled, but the whole achieved what only the best opera does: a reinterpretation that breathed new life, new understanding, into a work we thought we knew.

Most striking were the sets and costumes designed by Thomas Woodruff; the design bordered on overwhelming the music (no mean feat with Strauss). Woodruff created a fantasy of crystal balls and rock spires amid the steamy world of tropical flowers, a world dominated by a spectacularly huge full moon that transformed with the drama. Spider webs permeated every detail and flowers defined characters: Herodias' Venus-fly-trap dress with fly ornaments in her hair, Herod's anthurium headdress, Salome's decadent hot-house orchids and so on. One could almost smell the rotting jungle floor of Herod's tangled court.

Peter Dean Beck matched Woodruff's design with lighting cues echoing almost every line of the drama. Colors worked symbolically: the warm oranges of Jokanaan, sickly greens of depravity, the reds of Herod's court, blood, and insanity. Combined with set and costumes, the lighting bordered on sensory overload and tended to detract from the singing, but the overall effect was dramatic and inspiring.

Kudos also to Betsy Fischer, who choreographed Salome's dance, always a tricky section of the opera. The dance developed the drama, revealing that she was dancing as much for Jokanaan as for Herod and clarifying the point at which Salome crossed over into insanity. Rather than the softly sensual veils, Fischer opted for a more depraved bondage-and-dominatrix style that underscored the transfer of power (and the anthuriums) from Herod to Salome.

Salome is one of those impossible roles, written for an attractive young girl with the voice of a middle-aged Brunnhilde, who must be a dramatic actress as well as a dancer capable of sustaining an extended solo while singing one of the most difficult of opera roles.

Soprano Kristine Ciesinski created a memorable Salome, from pouting teenager to obsessed psychopath, her singing imbuing the role with passion and depth. In fury, her voice filled the hall; in yearning, it became a silver pianissimo thread. Despite an unfocused edge to her highest register and a disconcerting tendency to swoop down wide leaps, Ciesinski exhibited excellent agility and control and a powerful middle register.

Tenor Kenneth Riegel presented a magnificent Herod, his singing so clear and responsive that it seemed to be his natural mode of expression. His voice alone of the singers could not be drowned by the orchestra's climaxes. He did not play-act Herod, he was Herod: a spoiled, lustful ruler of a depraved court, but also a sympathetic, multi-faceted character.

David A. Okerlund, with a hint of virile rawness in his deeply resonant voice, made a powerful Jokanaan the perfect prophet, and Ruthild Engert's impressive Herodias, with her richly colored mezzo-soprano, grinned Grinch-ishly through her shrewish meddling.

Tenor James Cornelison, as the hapless Narraboth who kills himself for love of Salome, added the right touch of tragic hero, and the resonant mezzo-soprano Dorothy Byrne was eloquent as Herodias' young page.

Even supporting roles shone: The five Jews quarreled magnificently, the two soldiers added lustrous voices and the two Nazarenes contributed solid voices of reason. And the executioner, although a mute role, added visual splash.

The singers were supported expertly by conductor Ivan Törzs, who sculpted a responsive and nuanced orchestra.

Ruth O. Bingham is a free-lance writer who has
a Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University.

E-mail to City Desk


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