“A willing suspension of disbelief”: That’s the remedy theater practitioners prescribe for audiences suffering through outlandish plot developments or character behavior that doesn’t look a whole helluva lot like real life. But if theater demands that disbelief merely be suspended, opera requires it to be bound and gagged and locked in the storm cellar. And it’s not just absurd librettos or the fact that all those folks behind the footlights are singing in a style that went out with gaslights and five-cent breakfasts that throws insurmountable obstacles before an audience. Most often it’s a matter of composers creating a superhuman theater of the mind that mere mortals and their puny stagecraft can only cheapen and render laughable.

In the century that Richard Strauss’ opera Salome has trod the boards, has anyone bridged the chasm between the way his eponymous nymphet was written on the page and the way she’s actually seen and heard onstage? The composer may be telling the age-old story of Herod’s stepdaughter doing a striptease for Daddy and getting the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter as a party favor, but his Salome is leagues beyond the two-dimensional sinner of the New Testament parable. Strauss expects his lead soprano to sound like a little girl while projecting over a gargantuan orchestra. She’s got to suggest fragility and sexual voraciousness, petulant changes of mood and an unswerving single-mindedness, regal reserve and a taste for public sex that pretty much rewrites every decency law out there. And—here comes the hard part—she needs to look like a pubescent vixen but with a verbal and vocal sophistication that singers don’t customarily develop until they’re around 50. (Teresa Stratas nearly pulled it off in a 1974 German film of the opera, but close miking and camerawork drew out nuances of her performance that would have evanesced on an opera-house stage.)

That Sylvie Valayre emerges barely bruised from her full-frontal assault on the title role in the Washington Opera’s current production of Salome is a tribute to the French soprano’s technique and sleight-of-hand. Her voice is a size or two too small for Salome—nearly all of her fellow cast members project with greater amplitude and presence—and her chest voice is arguably too dusky to suggest girlishness of any kind. But her high notes are relatively easy on the ear (when she isn’t unduly pushing her small instrument), and her middle register has a seductive amber tone and some carrying power. More important, she sings the words as if she knows what they mean, never settling for mere sound production when she can enliven a musical line with dramatic point-making.

And Valayre comes closer than most to looking like the young princess of Judea. No, she can’t disguise the fact that she’s old enough to have had a few Salomes of her own. But with her petite frame, alabaster skin, mane of silky black hair, and lovely, high-cheekboned face, she gives off a certain regal air, even if it’s of the Parisian-boulevard rather than the biblical variety. Plus, her acting is pretty much on the money. Following her failed seduction of Jokanaan (aka John the Baptist), she takes a long, masturbatory roll across the stage that ends in a twitching, self-asphyxiating climax. From that point, Valayre puts her character on the express bus to Psychosisville. Her Dance of the Seven Veils is nicely gauged and finishes topless. The final love scene with the severed head (the usual cheesy, tidily bloodless prop) gets a nice jolt from the singer’s look-at-Mr. High and Mighty-now sarcasm, delivered with asylum-worthy weirdness. And Valayre certainly deserves credit for spending more time kissing the Baptist’s dead mouth than is generally considered seemly.

Alas, while Valayre is set on boil all evening, conductor Heinz Fricke gets up only to simmer. Fricke’s command of orchestral color and chamberlike sonority is no less impressive this go-round than it has been previously in Strauss, and, to his credit, he treats the opera as a single, clearly thought-through piece. He observes Strauss’ dictum that much of the score be conducted with the delicacy of Mendelssohn’s fairy music, calibrating dynamics to prevent the pit from ever overwhelming the stage.

But that means that hysterical outbursts flare and subside politely. The knife-edged tension that should inform even the score’s quietest moments is nowhere evident. Fricke’s beat never relents enough to allow the riper melodies to expand or the crescendos that open and close the final scene to gather their annihilating force. Even when you consider how difficult it is to coax a huge sound from the Kennedy Center Opera House’s pit and how matter-of-fact some of Strauss’ own conducting was, Fricke still sounds too buttoned-up for this music. Salome is one of the opera world’s most libidinous scores: 100 minutes of music that leers and moans and fondles itself, perpetually teetering at (and occasionally spilling over) the brink of orgasm. Fricke, to put it bluntly, refuses to let his orchestra come.

The set—designed by John Bury and lit by Joan Sullivan-Genthe—is a Gustav Klimt lover’s wet dream, but otherwise the production is just as juiceless as the conducting. This is essentially the same Sir Peter Hall-directed L.A. Opera production that’s been around for years. It made a stop at WashOp in the early ’90s, with the deeply strange Maria Ewing as its compelling center. Playing Salome as if under hypnosis, she was unforgettable with her mad, unblinking eyes and feral body language, and her co-stars seemed, a good deal of the time at least, to be functioning under the same spell. As interpretive choices go, the dream-state idea made some sense, given the heavily stylized, obsessively imagistic, opium-scented libretto taken (practically verbatim) from Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name.

The current cast (under the supervision of stage director David Kneuss) seems to be under a hypnotic spell of its own: one that makes them forget who their characters are. Close your eyes and you’ll hear some fine singing: big, confident, pealing voices that convey feeling and intelligently weighted words. But veteran heldentenor Rene Kollo is a Herod who seems less obsessed with Salome than he is with Fricke’s baton. Jan-Hendrik Rootering, one of the finest German bass baritones singing today, plays Jokanaan in a mournful, put-upon way—think Abe Vigoda in a sword-and-sandal flick—and his unfortunate costume conjures more of the doughy hausfrau than the rabid evangelist. The fine mezzo Catherine Keen, unfortunately, also lets her costume dictate most of her character choices as Herodias, stamping around in a big ol’ red wig and bullet bustier, chin jutted out, like Bette Midler in a fit of pique. Corey Evan Rotz’s acting is less of a liability here than it has sometimes been, though as the captain of the guard, Narraboth, he appears consumed by nerves, not lust, when Salome brushes by his loincloth.

For all the production’s frustrations, though, Strauss’ one-two punch of pathological sex and seductive violence still makes an impact. Salome’s an opera that demands to be encountered in person, even if the live event can’t begin to match the fever dream the music can conjure in the listener’s mind; just letting this thing unfold in the same room in which you’re sitting can get the blood pumping.

But, just once, I’d like to see Salome done the way it ought to be. Not the way old-guard subscribers might like to see it done. Not the way some jet-setting prima donna would agree to have it done. Not even the way Strauss or Wilde, with their refined sensibilities, would consent to have it done. But Salome in all its sweaty, fanatical, blood-soaked, evangelical, pedophilic, stark-raving, XXX-rated glory. The kind of production that closes down opera houses, inspires death threats from right-wing lunatics, and imperils federal funding for the arts.

It’ll never happen, of course. Opera is no longer about risk or change or taking an audience by its collective lapels and shaking it out of its snoozy complacency. We’ll see a no-holds-barred Salome when we see the title role taken by a soprano who looks like Britney Spears, sings like Alessandra Marc, dances like Alessandra Ferri, and acts with the smoldering conviction of Nicole Kidman. Until then, we’ll just have to imagine it. CP