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Published: 3/7/2009

Toledo Opera's new production has local flavor via set design and choreography

BY SALLY VALLONGO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Amy Johnson, who will play Salome in Toledo, performs at the Arizona Opera. Amy Johnson, who will play Salome in Toledo, performs at the Arizona Opera.
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In the Valentine Theatre this Saturday, heads will roll.

Blood will be shed.

One of the most crazed and seductive characters of all time will perform her infamous Dance of the Seven Veils.

Yes, Salome’s back in town, courtesy of the Toledo Opera.

What a way to celebrate a golden anniversary: bring to life one of the Bible’s most bizarre and terrifying tales. (Do polish the platter.)

You don’t have to probe the Good Book deeply to uncover all sorts of evil hijinks: murder, incest, theft, obsession, deception, adultery, and, of course, Venus envy.

That last, of course, would be Herod, the randy Roman ruler whose lust for power was answered by Salome, the beautiful, deranged temptress, and her scheming mother, Herodias.

(Get the bucket and mop. Locate a strait jacket. Secure all prophets named John.)

Richard Strauss’s Salome, a century old now, remains a benchmark opera. Since its controversial premiere, it continues as a mainstay of the repertoire around the world.

Envisioned by Renay Conlin, TO artistic director, in collaboration with stage director James Marvel and conductor Thomas Conlin, this Salome promises not only drama and gorgeous music but also a distinctive local flavor.

A starkly architectural set has been built from scratch by Perrysburg artist Clayton G. Peterson, a seasoned stage designer making his Toledo Opera debut.

The long and simmering dance to be performed by Amy Johnson (Salome) and her attendants has been set by Nigel Burgoine, founder of Ballet Theatre of Toledo.

Out of the pit for a change, the Toledo Symphony will provide not only the grand musical impetus but also will play on stage, a central visual element throughout the one-act opera.

Also new to the mix is New York lighting whiz Tlaloc Lopez-Watermann.

"We want to harness the spirit of the story written by Oscar Wilde and the powerful score composed by Richard Strauss by finding a vivid theatrical equivalent," explains Conlin, who began pulling all the elements together last year.

The cast she selected in New York and Toledo auditions includes mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek, as Herodias; tenor Adam Klein as Herod; bass-baritone Bradley Garvin as Johanaan (John the Baptist); tenor Marc Shreiner as Narraboth, and mezzo Abby Powell as the Page.

Local singers include tenor Erik Johanson, soprano Aubrey Hagedorn, and newcomer bass-baritone Cory Clines, part of a sizeable cast of supporting singers. There is no chorus in Salome.

"This is my first opera," says Peterson, a multi-faceted artist whose initial interest in stage acting morphed into set design for live theater decades ago. "It’s really been a fascinating experience."

Opera engages all the senses, a challenge even for a seasoned designer comfortable with both the technical and artistic demands of his field.

"I had to focus on the music and focus on collaboration," says Peterson, who adds that the fit among the planners — Marvel, Lopez-Waterman, and Conlin — "felt like a natural.

"Working with Tom has been really interesting. I go to the symphony all the time, but with this project, I became more aware of the musicians. I learned how the drama is told first by the music."

Because Salome is a one-act, single scene opera, the set needed to comprise a space for every element in the story: from the opening in which characters become defined and the deadly dynamics among them depicted, to the gradual descent into insanity by the title character. The only movable element will be a huge moon against the backdrop.

And there was the hall itself, grandly historic and beautiful, yet not always adequate for the scale of a major operatic production such as this Strauss work, which is oversize not just in emotion and music but in cast and orchestral head count.

"The Valentine has its own challenges as a former burlesque stage," notes Peterson. "There is not room for 80 musicians in the pit."

Planners agreed that the only place for the orchestra was in the middle of the action onstage. Peterson designed a multi-level set with platforms of various heights designated for string, wind, brass, and percussion sections.

As the singers perform, they will wind their way through these sections and up and around a bridge-like scaffold. Garvin will be out of sight in a sub-stage compartment until his dramatic entrance.

"The sight lines are interesting," says Peterson, noting, "What was very nice was walking in there and feeling immediately at home."

For the penultimate scene, the famed dance in which Salome seduces Herod to grant her horrific wish, Burgoine has had to reach outside his comfort zone to summon a believably sensuous — yet not X-rated — performance for Johnson and her coterie in a very limited space over 10 minutes.

Giving away only a small piece of his strategy, Burgoine, who typically choreographs classical ballet — his setting of Cinderella is opening in April — for professional and training dancers on a large stage, says, "I’m going to utilize the motion of many veils and emphasize body-skimming — not touching — moves to create the effect the stage director is seeking."

He notes that he has found in singer Amy Johnson a willingness to collaborate, the better to achieve the most powerful dramatic effect within limits of space and dance capability.

Performances of "Salome" will be 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and March 20, and 2 p.m. March 22 in the Valentine Theatre. Tickets from $29 to $95 may be purchased online at toledoopera.org, or by phone at 419-255-7464. Discounts are available for students, seniors or groups of 10 or more. "Salome" will be sung in German with English translations projected above the stage.



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