Posts Tagged ‘R. Strauss’s Salome’

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 sensed in the air. 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 it 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.


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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.

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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.

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In Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome comes to a terrace in Herod’s palace where she would eventually hear the voice of Iokanaan coming from a cistern. It must be terrible to be in so black a hole. It is like a tomb, she says. But in Harry Kupfer’s ooooold production for the Staatsoper unter den Linden, one may wonder if the cistern is worse than the prison-like setting where the Herod entertains his guests. I mean, it is not a prison-like setting – it is a prison in the 1970’s. Why women are allowed there at all, it is a question one might ask oneself. The page of Herodias, for instance, is here shown as a woman too – with a bizarre wig. Why is there a party in the facilities? And what these orthodox Jewish guys are doing there? These seem to be picky question in the context of these production, but once you are there in the theatre, you cannot help seeing the whole thing and making questions. In any case, it seems that a new head could not be produced to fit James Rutherford’s looks. The one Salome had did not look like him at all. By the way, probably because the head “belonged” to other Jochanaan, Salome could not do with it everything she said she would.

In any case, the Lindenoper is the right place to hear to this opera – the hall’s relatively small size gives the cast the opportunity to reserve their full-power singing to the key moments, what is essential in such a difficult score. In that department, maestro Pedro Halffter Caro deserves praises for finding the right volume of sound not to cover singers on stage and to uncover the complex writing for woodwind. However, the recessed string sound involved also a great loss of clarity.

Angela Denoke’s Straussian credentials are beyond suspicion – her sizeable creamy lyric soprano floats through Straussian lines to the manner born. It is also a voice that sounds lovely and young as Strauss would have wanted the role to sound. However, although this is a singer who has Sieglinde and Fidelio in her repertoire, Salome does require a very special kind of voice – those high-lying voices the glimmer of which pierce through an orchestra without much effort (such as Ljuba Welitsch’s or Hildegard Behrens’s). Denoke’s impressive technical control allowed her to prevent any loss of creaminess and roundness throughout, but that was achieved at the expense of carrying power in climactic high notes, in which wavering in pitch would also afflict her line. As a result, the closing scene would be her less successful moment and she seemed finally tired at the end of it. She is also a powerful stage actress, but her whole method is too intellectualized for a teenager. As a result, one would think rather of an experienced vamp trying her seductive powers on a new object. And that is not the story Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss’s story. Also her dancer-like movements throughout the opera preempted the effect of her not-really-danced dance. I do not want to give the impression that Angela Denoke’s Salome is not worth while the visit to the theatre – one the contrary, this is a Salome with an exquisite voice, who can act and who can let the seventh veil drop without embarassing herself. But the sum of these exceptional parts do not add to a truly overwhelming performance.

James Rutherford’s Jochanaan similarly benefits from the hall’s small auditorium. It is not a huge voice, but forceful enough and he sings with commitment.  Although Reiner Goldberg’s approach is sometimes too over-the-top, his heldentenor is still impressive for a Charaktertenor role and he has the necessary charisma. Stephan Rügamer sang Narraboth with ardour and elegance, but the theatre should have announced Rosemarie Lang’s indisposition before letting her step on stage in such dire vocal condition. It is a small role, but the likes of Grace Hoffman, Agnes Baltsa and Leonie Rysanek have not refused the opportunity to sing it.

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