Jürgen Flimm’s production of R. Strauss’s Salome for the Met was first shown in 2004 with Karita Mattila in the title role. Four years later, the Finnish soprano tackles again in New York this uniquely challenging role in New York in the same production – but things have changed somehow since last time.
When I write about changes, I am naturally refering to musical aspects, since I was not able to attend the original run of performances, but only to listen to one of them on the radio. I remember back then that I had doubts about Mattila as Salome. My experience is that the part is pretty unsingable for any soprano without a slightly metallic edge to help the voice to run into the auditorium over a dense orchestral sound without resorting to extremes of loudness throughout. That description does not apply to Mattila’s velvety tonal quality, but she could at her prime nonetheless conjure the necessary lightness and stand up to the taxing high dramatic notes that sit in the limit of her resources.
Not anymore, I am afraid. Although the floating quality of her voice remains taylor-made for Strauss, the loss of tonal sheen makes her performance small-scaled in terms of volume. The closing scene left me in the end of my seat for the wrong reasons – I was actually wondering if she would make it to the end, since her voice has lost entirely tonal quality in forte passages and exposed Spitzennoten were quite wayward by then. In compensation, her portrait of the perverse princess has become a bit more complex. I find it particularly commendable the way Mattila centers her approach around a sense of intoxication. Her main prop in the show is a bottle of champagne and, in the closing scene, the many instances of repeated text or questions to herself are made to recreate a drunken person’s emphatic way of speaking.
Despite the strain and lack of cutting power, it is still a presentable performance as a whole – a tour de force by an admirable singer actress unfortunately a bit past her prime in vocal terms. From a distance, Mattila still looks very well for her age. Although one would not think of a teenager, the most important point is that she remains an immensely attractive woman who can be proud of her five seconds of nudity in the end of her dance. Speaking of that, I don’t know if its tentativeness was made on purpose, but actually she does not dance. She does some steps and then walks and runs about a lot. It is true that Salome is not a professional dancer as some productions suggest, but there could be something more presentable anyway. As a matter of fact, I don’t know if that was on purpose, but she actually made more dance steps everywhere else but in her proper dance number.
Although I could get used to Santo Loquasto’s nouveau riche sceneries, it is a bit cramped and the action had litte free space to develop. I don’t believe that the updating did the plot any good – the religious aspect seemed a bit lost in context, unless you could think that the story takes place in today’s Asia, but the women were not dressed accordingly if that was the idea. However, the black-clad angels of death were the silliest idea in the whole production. No – maybe that final scene, where Salome exposes her breast defiantly to the soldier’s executional sword. That just does not go with the music, which portrays her being killed by spears. In one word, I do think that a stronger concept in stage direction is seriously missing – actors throwing themselves to the ground seemed to be the only expressive tool available – when Narraboth kills himself, it is difficult to know who actually is dead after all, since so many people are lying down at that moment.
As for the musical aspects, Patrick Summers did a beautiful job with the more lyrical passages, offering a basically acceptable transparent and multicolored orchestral sound, but the truth is that things got rather slack and pointless in more complex and/or declamatory passages. I suspect that a lack of acquaintance with the descriptive and motivic reference structure in the score is to blame. I must acknowledge, though, that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra’s strings proved to be in good shape. The same cannot be said of noisy and unnoble brass. The principal victim of the messy approach was the Herod’s long interventions before the closing scene. Kim Begley knows what is required from him, but he is too lightweight for the vastness of the Met. As a result, we got tangled orchestral sound while this gentleman was saying something in the background.
I don’t know what to say about Juha Uusitalo’s performance as Jochanaan – first because I could barely hear it. I felt really sorry for him for the embarassment of listening to his voice more clearly when he was supposed to be lying in the bottom of a cistern (apparently equipped with a high-end amplification system) than on stage right in front of us. As for Ildikó Komlósi, she sure has powerful top notes and understands what is required from her, but her German is rather inert, what makes most of her part pointless. She was also sabotaged by a direction who made her do nothing while her daughter seduces her husband, kisses a man’s severed head etc. Finally, I must single out Joseph Kaiser’s lyrically sung Narraboth.