There is nothing new in saying that recordings do not say everything about a live performance – but I have never experienced that sensations as strongly as I have today in Verbier. Before you jump to the conclusion that the unrecorded part of the event was the thrill, I tell you right away that the performance was particularly unexciting. The unrecordable part actually was the technical aspects of making a demanding score work in unideal circumstances.
To start with, although many like to say that Salome is a symphonic poem with voices, Richard Strauss composed this music to follow the theatrical action – its effects, its atmosphere, its tempo were conceived to create a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk experience, and that is why this it is seen as a masterpiece. Of course, the depth of R. Strauss’s writing can survive the absence of a staging, but then the conductor has to make the action take place in the orchestra and soloists have to make it happen in their voices. That was not the case today. But this does not mean that the performance was devoid of interest.
Valery Gergiev faced two problems – a festival orchestra (a fact that goes beyond the absence of cohesion that long-standing orchestras have, but most of all that involves having to build a sound culture for the particular piece – something one would not need to explain to the Vienna Philharmonic or the Staatskapelle Dresden, for example) and extremely unfavourable acoustics. The Salle des Combins is a very large temporary structure with particularly dry acoustics. Warm orchestral sound is impossible in such a venue and singers had to work hard to be heard. What struck me as particularly commendable of Mr. Gergiev was the fact that, not only was he aware of that, but also that he adjusted his whole performance to these conditions. As a result, instead of sensuous, rich sounds, the audience was treated to an impressively structurally transparent performance of this opera: singers did not have to shout themselves out to pierce through a thick orchestra, R. Strauss’s sophisticated harmonic effects were clearly defined and each part of this multicoloured score formed a coherent whole. What was missing then? The sparkle of imagination to make this marvelous structure say something. From the Dance of the Seven Veils, the performance started to simmer down and, by the closing scene, when things should be running unleashed, they seemed quite well-behaved and lacking purpose.
I wonder how microphones caught Deborah Voigt’s formidably unsubtle performance. I had the impression that R. Strauss would have found it unforgivably vulgar if he heard something like that in, say, the Vienna State Opera. Considering the venue’s difficult acoustics, however, its unvariably loud quality was quite refreshing. After some shaky moments in the recent years, it seems this American soprano has regained her vocal health and stamina, for she really had no problem with producing a neverending series of big top notes. I know her high register has always been the strong feature of her voice, but they seemed very well integrated into a serviceable middle register, differently from what I’ve heard from her the last three times I saw her – in singer-friendlier theatres. Her interpretation turned around naughtiness, what is probably what one does when one has no tonal and dynamic variety, but more believable pronunciation of German would have made all the difference in the world. This evening, Salome did not want to kiss Jokanaan, but seemed to want from him an object that would be translated as a mouth-pillow. Although Evgeny Nikitin’s German needs improvement as well, his very Russian-sounding baritone is impressively powerful and firm-toned. He is also emphatic to the point of hamminess in the interpretation department, but at least he more or less fulfilled the character description more readily than anyone else this evening. Siegfried Jerusalem struggled with his top notes through the whole evening, but his voice retains its natural tonal quality and his diction is exemplary. As for the 74-year-old Dame Gwyneth Jones, although she flashed one or two incisive notes during the evening, one must understand this as a generous cameo appearance from one singer who deserves more than anyone else the title of World’s Living Treasure. Someone like me, who did not have the luck to see her before her “official“ retirement, should cherish the opportunity just to watch her on stage.