Jan 21, 2020
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It’s ‘Salome.’ But With Puppets.

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VIENNA — The most infamous part of Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera “Salome” is the Dance of the Seven Veils, a striptease performed by a character meant to be just 16. It’s a deliberately provocative gesture that helped make “Salome” the most scandalous opera of its time.

Yet there is more at stake in the work than a soprano getting undressed. A bold new production at the Theater an der Wien here uses puppets to explore the inner landscape of the work’s protagonist, offering a novel twist on an ambiguous figure: Is Salome a bloodthirsty seductress, a girl experiencing a sexual awakening, or something in between?

In Nikolaus Habjan’s new staging, which runs through Jan. 30, both the protagonist and the object of her desire — the prophet John the Baptist — are portrayed by puppets designed and crafted by the director in his signature, highly expressive style. With their pasty skin and cartoonishly large eyes, they have hypnotic intensity.

The innovation of Mr. Habjan’s interpretation becomes all the more evident when compared to the Vienna State Opera’s classic staging, which is being revived at the same time. (It continues through Friday.) Where Mr. Habjan’s production takes a deep dive into the mind of its central character, the State Opera’s Art Nouveau-inspired production is more of a picture book, remaining largely on the surface.

This contrast isn’t a surprise. The Vienna State Opera is one of the world’s most important, and busiest, companies. Along with a 150-year history of musical excellence, it has a reputation for old-fashioned stagings. The smaller, more adventurous Theater an der Wien, founded in 2004, is known for edgier productions, often of works outside the standard repertoire, including Baroque and contemporary operas.

Mr. Habjan’s Dance of the Seven Veils isn’t a striptease. Salome’s dance, charged with eroticism and menace, is instead here a working-through of her traumatic memories of being sexually molested as a child.

“The dance is where Salome casts off the puppet and lets go of the body that other people look at and desire,” Marlis Petersen, the German soprano who plays Salome, said in an interview. “It’s like emancipation.”

Up until that point, Ms. Petersen and her puppet perform the role pretty much as a unit, with the soprano often carrying and manipulating the puppet while she sings. At the dance’s wild climax, however, Ms. Petersen liberates herself from her double.

In an interview in his cluttered workshop in Vienna, strewn with puppets — including likenesses of Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump — and their detached body parts, Mr. Habjan, 32, said he used puppets to add new dimensions to the characters onstage. But in “Salome” he knew that “there should be a moment when we see behind the puppet, and when the puppeteer becomes much more important than her puppet.”

One of the reasons he likes to use puppets in his opera productions, he added, is that puppets can get away with things that opera singers usually can’t. “You can always tell when a director hasn’t worked with his singers,” Mr. Habjan said, pantomiming histrionic gestures. “You see that very often.”

“But when you channel these big, operatic gestures into the puppet,” he added, slowly opening its arm in a grandiose gesture, “it’s beautiful.”

Ms. Petersen said that learning to manipulate a puppet while singing a role that is among the most difficult in all of opera was “a lot of work. And when you start doing this, you are amazed what body parts can ache, because your arms and wrists are not used to moving this way.”

“She has my face,” Ms. Petersen added, referring to the plaster and silicon mold that Mr. Habjan made of her and then cast in polyurethane. “I took her home. You think about yourself in a new way when you have your exact doppelgänger sitting on your sofa.”

Boleslaw Barlog’s 1972 production at the Vienna State Opera is not nearly so psychologically incisive. One of the company’s war horses, with over 200 performances, it features eye-popping sets by Jürgen Rose that resemble a Klimt painting come to life. If Mr. Habjan’s puppetry plumbs the depths of Salome’s subconscious, Mr. Barlog’s production’s charms are all on the stylish but straightforward surface.

And it features an actual striptease, though a rather tame one.

“I’m a fan of classics because they tell the story,” said Lise Lindstrom, the American soprano who stars in the production and has made “Salome” one of her calling cards. (She next sings the role in Houston in April.)

The sparkling sets and costumes provide a showcase for Strauss’s searing music. Amid all the glitter, however, the production actually places an added burden on its star. Without the guidance of a director sensitive to psychology — Mr. Barlog died in 1999 — she’s on her own to come up with an answer to the question of “Who is Salome?”

“She’s so complicated,” Ms. Lindstrom said. “I see her as a femme fatale, but also as a young girl who has way too much power and really doesn’t know how to use it, except she knows she gets results with her body.”

The Dance of the Seven Veils is sometimes dismissed as one of the opera’s weaker parts, an Orientalist hodgepodge that lacks the musical complexity of the rest of the piece.

Ms. Lindstrom disagrees. “As someone who has sung Salome a lot,” she said, “I actually find it almost the most daunting piece of the whole opera because it’s so rarely incorporated in the concept of the production. But it’s absolutely crucial to the development of the character and of the opera.”

“It’s not about the nudity,” she added. “That’s so not the point.”

Through Jan. 30 at Theater an der Wien, Vienna; theater-wien.at. And through Friday at the Vienna State Opera; wiener-staatsoper.at. (Live broadcast at Staatsoper Live on Friday.)

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