After the February 19 matinee performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome, given by the Opera Company of North Carolina at Memorial Hall on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill, I felt drained, disturbed…, and thoroughly thrilled. All of these deserve credit: George Gray (Herod), Gwendolyn Jones (Herodias), Kelly Cae Hogan (Salome), Bradley Garvin (Jokanaan), David Holley (Narraboth), Cheryse McLeod (Page/Slave); Paul Mow, Daniel Stein, Simon Lee, Wade Henderson, & Jason S. McKinney (Jews); Yungbae Yang & Henry S. Gibbons (Nazarenes); Uwe Dambruch & Robert Swan (Soldiers); Jason S. McKinney (The Cappadocian); Emily Baldwin, Gina Hayek, & Robert Nash (supers). Special kudos for brave daring in putting together this challenging masterpiece in the Triangle go to Robert Galbraith, stage director. Other credits include Ken Yunker (lighting); Curtis Jones (production manager); DJ Haugen (technical director); scenery from Opera Philadelphia, designed by Boyd Ostroff; Richard St. Clair, Patricia Hibbert, & Beni Montressor, costumes; Anne Ford-Coates, makeup/hair; Lisa Ellis & Kasey Ostopchuck, stage managers; Laurie Johnson, props; and Steve Dubay, Master Electrician.

Strauss, at first disinterested in Wilde’s play as a libretto, later took a German translation, edited it himself, and wrote the music. Salome is a setting of the Biblical story of John the Baptist’s beheading, found mostly in Luke, chapter 3 and Matthew, chapter 14. Wilde, however, added some twists of his own, turning it into a drama not only about sex but also about necrophilia. Because of the subject matter and action – including the erotic dance of the seven veils, and the lurid sensuality Salome directs to the severed head of the Baptist – the opera set off a furor across the world, being banned on both London and New York stages.

The music written by Strauss – who already reigned supreme as a composer of tone poems – focused on lyrical vocal lines over intensely chromatic accompaniment, at times stretching harmonic dissonance nearly to the edge of Berg’s Wozzeck, which followed some 17 years later. He created one of the most challenging title roles in the repertoire, needing the voice of a forty-year-old in the body of a nubile sixteen-year-old. It is in one act and takes considerably less than two hours to perform. It grows in intensity all the way from the opening obsessions with the moon, the wind, and the beautiful young princess to its brutal and shattering end. The controversy served the opera well, and it became a huge success. Elektra followed pretty much the same musical and dramatic formula, but by the time of his last two operas, Der Rosenkavalier and Arabella, Strauss returned to a much more harmonically subdued romanticism.

Strauss’s orchestration calls for nearly Wagnerian forces. Memorial Hall couldn’t quite accommodate it, but the packed pit put out a glorious sound, and the instrumental textures and colors supported the key moments beautifully. Laurence Gilgore, of Connecticut Grand Opera, held the performance together, cued critical entrances, shaped the phrases – both lyrical and terrible, too – nicely, and moved the intensity forward throughout the performance. Even though this was his first Salome, it was apparent that he was thoroughly prepared and had the score and libretto well in hand.

Metropolitan Opera soprano Hogan delivered a fetching and frightening Salome, her voice, vocal training, and experience every bit the equal of the part. (She portrayed the role with the Warsaw National Opera on tour in Japan earlier this season.) She projected the fickle seductiveness, the rage at rejection, and the self-centered insanity of a young girl with the potency and subtlety of a mature and experienced vocalist. The closing soliloquy with the head of Jokanaan was breathtaking.

Widely-experienced Jones, a right neighborly mezzo-soprano from Oklahoma, transformed herself, musically and dramatically, into one of the most obnoxious characters in all opera. Herodias is petulant, conniving, and baiting from the opening of the opera. It is no wonder John proclaims from the dungeon that the guards should kill her and crush her with their shields. Jones was a standout in the performance.

Gray was Herod. He played and sang the role inside out and upside down: Herod’s insanity, terror, lecherousness, and grandiosity were all in place as though Gray were made for the role, which is to say he did a brilliant job as an artist.

Some of my favorite music in Salome is delivered by John the Baptist from the dungeon, and Garvin sang it with lyrical force. His voice was like a trombone – solid, mellow, heroic – pronouncing the coming one, denouncing the sins of the evil ones, and almost – but not quite – wavering under the intense seduction of the young princess of Judea.

One of the most complex and demanding scenes in the opera is the argument among the Jews in Herod’s court who want John the Baptist released to them. There is humor, piety, and bigotry, all going on at the same time, with voices interrupting and singing over each other. It was superbly carried off.

Narraboth, a character who almost gets lost in the intensity of the opening scenes as Salome toys with him – in fact he does, for he commits suicide – was beautifully sung by Holley. The rest of the cast was well prepared, and every one of them contributed to the intense, horrifying beauty of this incredible opera. Thanks to the vision of Robert Galbraith and Opera Company of North Carolina, it is not an experience those who saw it will soon forget.