Before Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker add Stefan Herheim’s production to their Salome, the audience in Berlin was treated to two concert previews in the Philharmonie, which – if I am not mistaken – also mark Emily Magee’s debut in the title role. I can only imagine that this is a favorite score for the members of the Philharmonic, for they played with the kind of engagement that only now and then seems to appear in “Rolls-Royce” orchestras.
If I had to declare which was my favorite concert with the BPO and Simon Rattle, this would probably be it. The Philharmonic denied its musical director nothing: the strings particularly protean in varying from the noblest, warmest and fullest glimmering sounds to the most colorful descriptive effects; inspired and dramatically aware solos from woodwind and brass and impressively kaleidoscopic collective effects, especially in the closing scene. Rattle presided over the ensemble with a loving eye, bringing the lyricism to the fore, giving time for this music to breathe and relishing the harmonic complexity by highlighting every little tiny dissonance in the score, for illuminating results. However, there remains the problem of balancing soloists and the formidable orchestra, especially in concert version. Although I generally accuse the English conductor of being inattentive to his singers, I have to acknowledge that this time he really tried. He opted for the difficult compromise of finding the optimal point in which the orchestra could keep its refulgence without entirely covering singers’ voices. A risky choice that required permanent adjustment. It is true that he proved to have amazing control of his musicians, by demanding very precise dynamical up and down-scaling in volume while avoiding abruptness entirely. As always, this had a cost. First, a sense of cautiousness haunted the first half of the opera, with the extra effect of a certain “hysteria” in the moment when the instruments were alone at last. Although it was undeniably exciting to hear the Philharmonic unleashed, these moments require not only more “space” to grow but also depend on the Straussian hallmark chiaroscuro to come to life. As it was, things had to develop from 95% to 100% in moments like the passage which depicts Jochanaan being brought out of his cistern. On the other hand, the Dance of the Seven Veils lacked spirit – beautiful as the sound was, the orchestra seemed too ready to let it all out instead of relishing the art-nouveau filigree concocted by Strauss. In the closing scene, Rattle finally seemed to have chosen the orchestra over his soloists – and, although the poor singers had to work hard for the money, the orchestral performance was so dense, so multi-layered that one could not help surrendering. The composer himself referred to his opera as a “scherzo with a tragic ending” and the conductor proved this evening to have understood that. Probably never since Böhm’s CDs from Hamburg (alas, with a sub par orchestra) had I heard a performance in which the thematic material presented as “atmospheric” in the Jochanaan/Salome scene was so precisely restated in the final scene now under a quasi-grotesque coloration. I would be curious to know how this is going to work in the Grosses Festpielhaus.
Every time I write about this opera’s title role, I repeat that a natural Salome has a bright voice above all to allow her to pierce through the orchestra without having to switch to fifth gear every time things get difficult. But the likes of Ljuba Welitsch are unfortunately very rare. With her creamy-toned floating soprano, Emily Magee hardly fits the description. It is true that her voice is big enough, but its delicate hue is too often overshadowed by the orchestra and the low notes basically remain on stage. That said, among the almost invariably miscast singers I have seen in this part, she was probably the best. First of all, she has really solid technique and never, ever forces. As a result, her soprano is never less than round, easy and pleasant. Although one could see that this is a difficult role, she didn’t have to work herself up to deal with it, but rather manage her resources with shrewdness. By the moment when most Salomes are screaming themselves out, Magee still produced flowing Straussian lines, the occasional pianissimo and remained true to intonation, although you wouldn’t always hear that. Second, she has no problem with high notes, what is always reassuring when one is about to hear a long piece of excruciatingly difficult singing. Finally, her Salome is refreshingly spontaneous. Although her voice does not have a virginal quality, she eschews vulgarity and affectation, suggesting quite appropriately rather a perverse child coveting a toy she cannot play with. Moreover, she handles the declamatory writing adeptly and has relatively clear diction.
Iain Paterson’s spacious, noble and ductile baritone works beautifully in the role of Jochanaan. He too suffered from the competition with the orchestra and seemed a bit tired by the end of his long scene with Salome, but this did not prevent him from offering an intelligent and theatrical performance. A name to keep. Stig Andersen did not seem to be in a good day – one would hardly guess that he has sung Wagnerian roles by what one heard this evening – but he did sing the part of Herod; even the most verbose moments never lacked a flowing singing line, not to mention that he colored the text with unusual intelligence. I don’t feel like being objective about Hanna Schwarz: she is great and that’s it. At this stage of her career, her voice is not exactly beautiful, but still impressively forceful and focused. If someone found no problem in a loud orchestra this evening, this would be her (and a powerfully dark-toned Rinat Shaham as the page of Herodias). And there is not an ounce of nonsense in that woman – she is simply mesmerizing. Last but not least, among the minor roles, Oliver Zwarg’s deserves mention as the First Soldier.