'The moon has a strange look tonight . . . she is like a mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers . . . the clouds . . . clothe her nakedness but she won't let them . . . she reels through the clouds like a drunken woman."
And that's only a scene-setting speech in Oscar Wilde's lurid telling of how Princess Salome used her sexual wiles, amid the night sky, to bring about the execution of John the Baptist - magnified to the nth degree by Richard Strauss' scandalous music.
Often presented in concert versions (by the Vienna Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony this spring alone), Salome concludes the Philadelphia Orchestra's season Thursday and Saturday with a presentation - sold out for months - meant to both inspire and leave surprisingly little to the imagination.
Though never intended to be an opera house, the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall has become one, thanks to a team of directors and designers who have brought crowns, costumes, chains, and moons (plural) to the first coproduction between the Philadelphia Orchestra and Opera Philadelphia.
Though the two have collaborated in some voice-related concerts, their respective leaders, Allison Vulgamore and David Devan, shared a celebratory high-five at the start of Wednesday's dress rehearsal: Everything was in place, including the largest lighting grid ever hung over the Verizon Hall stage, plus the blue-chip cast headed by soprano Camilla Nylund. Production elements cost $250,000 - quite low for opera - split 50/50.
Turquoise walls frame the stage built over the orchestra in what is normally the Conductor's Circle. The organ console has always resembled a throne, and now it is one - King Herod's. The onstage entrance for the percussion section is now the cistern in which Jochanaan (John the Baptist) is imprisoned.
"It's perhaps more than I thought it would be," music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin acknowledged. "But you can't go halfway. It's either a concert version or it's that."
Logistically, the opera makes sense for this setting. The cast isn't vast. The piece is a compact, intermissionless 110 minutes. Though operas in concert often have singers standing in front of the orchestra, Nézet-Séguin wanted to be able to face them, as he does in theaters. Hence, their placement in the Conductor's Circle. Besides requiring heroic singing actors, the score is a virtuoso showcase for the Philadelphia Orchestra. "It puts us all out of our comfort zone," Nézet-Séguin said, adding, "maybe not so much myself, because I'm used to it."
What perhaps nobody expected - amid the florid talk of the night sky - is the presence of seven moons, as conceived by designer Vita Tzykum and director Kevin Newbury (who will be back for Opera Philadelphia's Oscar next season). Perhaps the moons correspond with the seven veils Salome drops when dancing for Herod?
"Seven phases of the moon is a good way to think about it," said Newbury. "She sends the moons into the sky throughout the dance as if she's moving heaven and earth to get what she wants."
Where does the Philadelphia Orchestra fit in? It's too large to disguise as anything but what it is. Newbury sees the players as characters. "Watching them play is thrilling," he says. "We see Salome looking out at the night sky, and the orchestra, with all the little light stands, becomes the night sky in reverse. It's very psychological."
A twist, even for Salome mavens, is that Jochanaan is hardly immune to the princess' allure, a revelation to Nézet-Séguin that he believes is supported by the music: "There's something perfect about that score - the balance between the lyricism and the tortured violence. Just amazing."
Not every Salome is up for the "Dance of the Seven Veils." Some productions use body doubles that don't fool anybody. But Nylund, who was Nézet-Séguin's first choice purely in vocal terms and who happens to be a statuesque Finn, learned the dance readily. She will not, however, follow the current fashion of taking it all off. Though the dance is about seduction, Newbury says, it's not a strip.
"Distilling the opera down to its ritualistic quality, I dare say it works better than a giant, full production," he says. "Sweeney Todd is done this way all the time."
What everybody wants to know is: Will Salome sing her final scene with Jochanaan's severed head? Yes, and not just any head.
It's here that the opera, premiered in 1905, maintains its ability to shock: Newbury and Tzykum seemingly lucked out by locating a head from the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto that had been modeled after Alan Held, who sings the role in Philadelphia. And then. . . .
"First thing in the morning, you open your e-mail and see a severed head," said Tzykum, wincing at the thought. "It looks just like him. It's also odd to see it sitting backstage on the props table. I'm sure it's disconcerting for him."
With a previous version of the production having run successfully in Salt Lake City, might this Salome become something of a franchise, much the way The Tristan Project (Wagner's Tristan und Isolde) now travels the world with video by Bill Viola? "As long as there are points from which you can suspend the moons, and as long as we can do the cistern," said Tzykum, "this could travel."
8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets.
Tickets: Sold out. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.EndText