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There are opening nights, and then there are opening nights. Saturday night was not the official opening of Opera Theatre of St. Louis' season, but it should have been.

The company's first production of Richard Strauss' "Salome" brought together a true star soprano and some other excellent singers, a set design that turned the Loretto-Hilton's liabilities into assets, musical and dramatic tension and solid playing in the orchestra, for a powerful evening that swept along like a force of theatrical nature.

This is a psychological and musical tour de force that has not lost its power to shock.

Kelly Kaduce is always an affecting performer, a superb singer and committed actress. As Salome, she also demonstrated grace as a dancer. Kaduce's portrayal of the Princess of Judea was complex and fully developed, gradually revealing the monstrous nature of the girl's obsession with the prophet Jokanaan.

It didn't hurt that, unlike most sopranos capable of singing the part, she looked as young as the character she played. The vocal writing is notoriously demanding, with a wide range concentrated in a high tessitura; no problem. Kaduce was simply stunning in the role.

It was a strong cast overall. As Herodias, Salome's calculating mother, mezzo-soprano Maria T. Zifchak was full-voiced, self-assured and glamorous; she was a delightfully cynical figure. Tenor Michael Hayes had almost too noble a sound for the corrupt and vicious Herod. His character was more balanced than is usual, and he resisted the temptation to chew the scenery too hard.

Eric Margiore brought a lovely, lyrical tenor and fine presence to the role of Narraboth, the captain of the guard who is smitten with Salome. As the Page, smitten with Narraboth, Lindsay Ammann displayed a clear mezzo voice and matching diction.

Baritone Gregory Dahl's Jokanaan was well-done but not quite up to the level of the other principals; he didn't have the lower range that the role requires, and he lacked the compelling presence to give traction to Salome's obsession.

The supporting roles, drawn from the ranks of the Gerdine Young Artists, were consistently well done. Particularly noteworthy were bass Matthew Anchel's big-voiced First Soldier and tenor Joshua Kohl's First Jew. Special kudos go to the five Jews, who nailed their fiendishly difficult ensemble.

Director Sean Curran kept the action moving breathlessly toward its horrifying conclusion, with only a few miscalculations. At times, Salome was directed to behave distractingly like a pouty sex kitten of the 1960s; and the Page should have witnessed Narraboth's spiral down to suicide. Herodias' best remark - that she doesn't believe in miracles because she has seen too many - was simply thrown away.

Curran is a choreographer, and there were no miscalculations in the Dance of the Seven Veils. It was sensuous and dramatic throughout. The nudity at the end was tastefully rendered and dramatically plausible. It was nowhere near as shocking as Salome's blood-soaked, NC-17 scene with Jokanaan's head.

Designer Bruno Schwengl's bare but effective set made the cistern both workable and the focus of the drama. His costumes generally worked well, from the sleeveless black hoodies of the soldiers to Herodias' elegant evening gown. He, too, had only a few miscalculations: Salome's red wig seemed inspired by a Midge doll (Barbie's best friend), and Herod's shirt and tie just looked silly.

Music director Stephen Lord triumphed in the pit; aside from some scrappiness from the strings at one point early on, the orchestra was splendid.

"Salome" is a compelling night of music theater.

IF YOU GO

What • Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents Richard Strauss' "Salome"

Where • Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves

When • 8 p.m. June 3, 5, 11; 1 p.m. June 20, 24; 7 p.m. June 28

Cost • $25 to $117

Info • 314-964-0644 or