Flash Farewell and Sexy Hello, As Karita Mattila Gets Naked

Great opera singers are always engaged in a kind of striptease: They expose themselves in all their vulnerability-and, at the same time, drape themselves with a blanket of beautiful sound. The Met has lately been full of operatic peekaboos. A few weeks ago, we were treated to the now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t phenomenon of Luciano Pavarotti’s voice in the final (apparently he means it) opera performances of his matchless career. Several nights later, a literal striptease occurred on the same stage-that of the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, in the title role of Richard Strauss’ Salome . For overwhelming nakedness, both performances were, in different ways, historic.

For Mr. Pavarotti’s farewell appearance as Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca , the red velvet barn was turned into something of a rock arena. Patrons were allowed to bring in cameras, with the result that the grimness of Puccini’s darkest opera (and Franco Zefirelli’s opulently gloomy production) was enlivened by the hissing and twinkling of flashbulbs. During the final, endless curtain calls, a red banner reading “We love you, Luciano” was unfurled across the Dress Circle, and parents led children down the aisle as if hoping to burn into their memory the tenor’s megawatt grin.

Sadly, the Met was less festive in the casting of Mr. Pavarotti’s last hurrah: Both the Tosca of Carol Vaness and the Scarpia of Samuel Ramey were painfully wobbly, as if foreshadowing other retirement evenings to come. In the pit, James Levine, who had conducted Don Giovanni in the afternoon, seemed to be phoning it in. But after Mr. Pavarotti took that final curtain call, what was left in the air was not his bewhiskered grin but the sound of that inimitable honeyed voice. It may have frequently faded to near inaudibility; it could only be produced from a seated position (with a glass of water nearby). And it never quite attained the golden power of its youth. Nonetheless, what we heard, in all its penetrating ease and eloquence, was incomparably Pavarotti . At 68, the most beloved tenor since Caruso still possesses the world’s most recognizable voice-the one we can virtually see in its gleaming, aphrodisiac nakedness.

Ms. Mattila’s Salome is an aphrodisiac of another order-the dream-seductress whose charms suddenly turn so ghastly that you wake up in a cold sweat. Strauss’ adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s dramatic poem, in which incest, volcanic adolescent sexuality and religious fanaticism collide in an act of unspeakable depravity, was shocking when it had its premiere, in Leipzig, in 1905. (It was banned for 27 years at the Met, after its first American performance in 1907 aroused the ire of J.P. Morgan’s daughter.) But it has never seemed more shocking than it does in the Met’s new production by the German director Jürgen Flimm.

Mr. Flimm, who gave the Met a powerfully reimagined Fidelio in 2000, chose not to set this Salome at King Herod’s court in biblical Judea, nor in some Surrealist dreamscape à la the famous Peter Brook–Salvador Dalí production of 1949, nor in the crypto-Fascist world of the Nikolaus Lehnoff staging for the Met, in 1989. Instead, he and his designers, Santo Loquasto (sets and costumes) and James Ingalls (lighting), have gone straight to the Pandora’s box in which so many of our most deliciously depraved fantasies have incubated-Hollywood. We are in a cartoonishly contrived Middle East-half artificial sand dunes that might have been borrowed from The Road to Morocco , half glitzy palace of a tackiness unworthy of a Holiday Inn in Abu Dhabi. A dinner party of bored Beautiful People assembled by Herod (a stolid Allan Glassman, who on opening night substituted for an indisposed Siegfried Jerusalem) and his wife, Herodias (an equally stolid Larissa Diadkova), is in progress. The Prophet Jochanaan (Albert Dohmen in a robust début) is ranting against this ungodly lot from his unseen cell in a cistern under rickety scaffolding. As time goes by, the only visually ominous element becomes a group of figures on the horizon wearing face-obscuring black robes and white wings-”angels in purdah” was my best ecumenical guess.

Into this disingenuously goofy setting (today’s avant-garde German directors specialize in this sort of compounded irony) arrives opera’s ultimate Bad Girl, the party wrecker par excellence. She’s a glamorous blonde in slinky satin-Jean Harlow out for trouble. It’s clear from her suggestive sashaying about that she herself has seen too many Harlow films, and our first response is to laugh at such a familiar icon of lowdown libido on the loose. But it’s a measure of Ms. Mattila’s fearless identification with this awful tart that we become inexorably, utterly appalled. Gradually, we realize that the production’s ingenious conceit is inspired by the opera’s most famous scene-the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” for which Ms. Mattila becomes Marlene Dietrich in male evening drag, executing (according to Doug Varone’s choreography) a wicked parody of cheesy, high-stepping eroticism.

If this production of Salome is about anything, it’s about stripping. It layers veils of Hollywood kitsch onto Strauss’ (and Wilde’s) kitsch-the better to shock us with the Bad Girl’s ultimate unveiling. True to Strauss’ feverish score (which was rather over-feverishly conducted by a reckless Valery Gergiev), this took place after Ms. Mattila had disrobed, fleetingly, down to her birthday suit, before allowing herself to be covered with a simple black garment. Then-when the executioner emerged from the cistern brandishing the Prophet’s head-she really went to work.

I have never, in more than 40 years of opera-going, experienced anything as shattering as this magnificent singer’s frenzied monologue of demented lust. Matching her own beautifully crazed movements with every bar of Strauss’ beautifully crazed music, she brought herself to a state of physical and vocal ecstasy that was so powerfully sustained as to make us complicit in the character’s madness. When it was all over, when Ms. Mattila reappeared onstage to a thunderous standing ovation, I realized that what we felt was not just the satisfaction of seeing a fascinating character revealed. We had witnessed, even more thrillingly, an unforgettable musical and dramatic creation-art laid bare.