The guest performances of European opera companies are an important part of Japanese musical scene – when prestigious opera houses and famous soloists are involved, unbelievably expensive tickets are sold out in a couple of hours and a sense of occasion can be felt in the days of these performances. The Vienna State Opera has visited Japan eight times since 1980 and has a policy of playing safe for their Japanese tours – mainstream repertoire, traditional productions and rather than the crème de la crème in their roster (as in the past), solid ensemble singers with two or three celebrities in the overall package to make it more appealing.
This time, Richard Strauss’s Salome has been chosen to open their Japanese agenda. On reading that we were going to see Boleslaw Barlog’s 1972 production (yes, you’ve read it correctly – 1972), I braced for an unpleasant but necessary exhumation, but – kitsch as it is (think of Aubrey Beardsley in Benetton colors) – the Spielleitung embraced the concept’s out-of-dateness and convinced the cast to find the Sarah Bernhardt hidden in the recesses of their souls. Although I find it sensible to provide a very simple choreography for someone who still has to tackle a very tough piece of singing, the climax (i.e., the seventh veil) was truly poorly timed. Similarly, the closing scene woefully misfired – there was no change in atmosphere (lighting? anyone?) and – as usual – the last two minutes were just embarrassing.
The performance was supposed to be conducted by General Musical Director Franz Welser-Möst, but, for some reason, he could not make it and good old Peter Schneider, who is here for next week’s Nozze di Figaro, took over. As we were explained, he conducted this very work back in Vienna only last year. I have seen very good performances with Maestro Schneider and he is indeed reliable, but has never been electrifying. When the opera began, the prospects did not seem very positive – Narraboth and Herodias’ page conversed in such a leisured pace that you could “hear” the punctuation. Salome’s entrance livened things a bit and little by little the proceedings acquired momentum. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra was (predictably) not always in its better shape, but could be uniquely persuasive in key moments. The way these musicians understand Strauss’s hallmark theatrical orchestral effects is a reward in itself. By the end, the performance seemed echt and quite convincing. For a difficult opera as this one, this is already something to be cherished. And there was a good cast too.
Although Gun-Brit Barkmin is a member of Berlin’s Komische Oper, this is the first time I have ever seen her. Her bright, slightly acidulous, but very firm soprano is hardly the most mellifluous Straussian instrument in the world, but, for a change, it is the right voice for this part: light, focused and very penetrating. Her phrasing – again most fortunate in the context of this production -is almost endearingly old-fashioned, with a conversational, coquette-ish style in its occasional almost operetta-ish portamento and slightly sharp exposed high notes. There could be a little more legato – especially when Salome describes her infatuation with Jochanaan in the first part of the opera – but one cannot overlook the fact that she did not seem to become tired towards the end of the opera. Some difficult high-lying passages could sound pinched, but that was all. Ms. Barkmin has also an interesting approach for the role – it turns around some sort of childish perversity without any hint of lechery (this should be obvious, but most singers behave here as high-mileage vamps, even though Strauss himself discouraged that). She was well matched by the rich-toned Markus Marquardt, whose heroic high notes rang out freely in the auditorium without any loss in textual clarity. Rudolf Schasching has the necessary verve for Herod, but his singing is undersupported and did not come through as clearly as one would desire. Herbert Lippert (Narraboth) sounded more natural and more positive in comparison. Although Iris Vermillion has the measure of the role of Herodias, it lies a bit high for her and, as a result, she sounded too often unfocused. On the other hand, the role of the Page is on the low side for the always reliable Ulrike Helzel.