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OPERA REVIEW : Massenet's Cheap Perfume : S. F. Exhumes 'Herodiade' With Superstar Domingo


SAN FRANCISCO — Massenet's "Herodiade," which received its not-much-awaited San Francisco Opera premiere this season, was first performed in Brussels in 1881. Some romantic indulgences travel quicker than others.

Everyone knows at least two of the hit tunes: the sweet, lovesick soprano's "Il est doux, il est bon" and the not-so-sweet lovesick baritone's "Vision fugitive." Few, however, know that the hum-along arias emanate from a prime example of that insufficiently neglected genre known as biblical bilge.

The soprano in question is Salome--not the depraved sex kitten with iron lungs defined for eternity by Richard Strauss but a dedicated sacrificial saint. The baritone may sing his heart out to the sympathetic gallery, but he happens to be the ignoble Herode.


This, after all, is the sprawling opus in which the stentorian-pure hero is called Jean the Baptist. To justify all the silly business in San Francisco, he looks and sounds for all the world like Placido Domingo.

Did I say silly business? How kind.

It would be hard to take the mystical muddle of "Herodiade" seriously in the cool light of 1994 under any circumstance. But Lotfi Mansouri, general director of the San Francisco Opera, has compounded the problem by assigning himself to stage the proceedings and engaging the now all-too-omnipresent Gerard Howland as scenic designer.

Mansouri's production, a festival of hoary-cartoon cliches, leaves no tattered turn unstoned. The gestures are impure stock, and the configurations suggest an ancient concert in costumes. Howland's ugly designs, which must at least have economy in their favor, suggest a raid on the warehouse. Jerusalem, AD 30, evolves in a little literal glitz here, a little ersatz modernism there, and lots of stylistically contradictory projections in the blurry background. Gilding the phony lily, Mansouri added a riotous razzle-dazzle wardrobe created for the nice people of Nice (as in France) by Maria-Luise Walek.

The quaint result is part De Mille quasi-spectacular (Cecil B., not Agnes), part Folies-Bergere show, part Vegas biz, part Christmas-pageant ritual, part stellar improv and part grand-operatic museum. This is High Art--note the capital letters, please--replete with hootchy-kootch dancers in discreet spangles, a couple of bare-breasted extras providing contradictory color, communal eye-rolling in lieu of acting, clumsy spear-carriers strutting in excelsis, bargain-basement luxury, and, for bad measure, a decapitation episode that the tasteful composer had wisely consigned to the viewer's imagination.

All this and music too.

The music is redolent of cheap perfume. It is, of course, very good cheap perfume.

Massenet knew his public and his period. He knew how to mix religious and erotic ecstasies, how to fuse the formulas of bombast and the allures of mock exotica. He knew how to send the masses home humming.

There is a lot of padding here, to be sure. There is a lot of engaging, well-made pap too. For the susceptible, under the right conditions, "Herodiade" could be the stuff of guilty pleasure. But. . . .

Valery Gergiev of the erstwhile Kirov Opera isn't exactly steeped in the gentle, sentimental Gallic tradition. The Muscovite maestro did little on Tuesday to reinforce the shimmering textures or to stress the subtle sensuality of the intimate passages. Nevertheless, he did manage to sustain an aura of dramatic urgency and expressive propulsion that often made sound more imposing than sight. One had to be grateful.

The cast was good, for the most part. Unfortunately, it wasn't good enough (and certainly not idiomatic enough) to validate the repertory exhumation.

Jean, the prophet with the heart of mush, isn't really the stellar challenge the Domingo fans had hoped for. The mellifluous Baptist does sing some very pretty love music near the beginning, however, and some very gutsy defiance music near the end. Our tireless and ever-authoritative hero rose to both challenges with a fine semblance of conviction.

Renee Fleming, the great diva hope among young spinto sopranos, sounded a bit wan at the outset, and she had to do some dangerous pushing to make an impact in moments of climactic rapture. At her best, however, she sang with glowing tone and sensitive coloration that could easily justify her place in a lonely pantheon.

Juan Pons looked burly and sounded woolly, also muffled, as he strolled through the crucial platitudes of Herode. Where, one had to wonder, are the splendorous baritones of yesteryear? Where are the successors to Maurel and Renaud, to Thomas and Tibbett, to Merrill and Warren, to Singher and Bacquier, to MacNeil and Milnes. . . ?

Although Herodiade is the titular protagonist, the semi-wicked queen hardly dominates the opera. That is a pity, because Dolora Zajick sang with bright, ringing, wide-ranging fervor that almost compensated for her helpless histrionics.

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