Richard Strauss - Salome
Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2011
Stefan Soltesz, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Angela Denoke, Alan Held, Kim Begley, Doris Soffel, Marcel Reijans, Jurgita Adamonyte
It’s somewhat difficult to grasp the nature of the concept behind director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2011 production of Strauss’ Salome or understand quite how it works, but it is delivered so powerfully in this Festspielhaus Baden-Baden staging that it’s not so hard to get a sense that he’s doing something absolutely right. The best thing you can do – and this ought to come naturally anyway if it’s done properly – is just focus on the singing and the music of this extraordinary, ground-breaking work of opera and the rest will fall into place, even if you don’t really understand why. There’s certainly a sense of dislocation then when you initially view this production, which has none of the superficial visual reference points that you would normally associate with its biblical Judean setting, and little even of the stylised imagery of moonlight nights and shadows of death suggested by a text derived from Oscar Wilde’s beautifully decadent overwrought imagery. Yet, as the opera itself takes shape, the surroundings fall into the background and instead simply provide an appropriate environment with space that allows Richard Strauss’ music to take centre stage.
In some respects you can see Lehnhoff’s work here as an extension of his approach to the symphonic tone poems of his Strauss and Wagner productions, most notably in Parsifal and, as a companion piece to this work, his Baden-Baden production of Elektra. Partly, those productions are representative of an interior mindset – particularly the latter – but they also are abstractly expressive of the tones and textures of the music itself and the themes that arise from the subject. The fractured, slightly titled landscape here in Salome suggests a psychological imbalance, while the contrasts that are expressed in the music and the characters are reflected in the textures of the walls and floors of the unconventional stage arrangement, with a dark glossy reflective centre-stage surrounded by crumbling plaster, broken tiles and rotting whitewashed wooden panels.
It’s far from naturalistic, but then there’s nothing naturalistic about the situation or the aggressive music that pushes the boundaries of the tonal system. Strauss’ Salome (drawn from imagery suggested by the paintings of Gustave Moreau and elaborated on by Flaubert, Mallarmé and Wilde) is far from a straightforward biblical tale, but rather an expression of dark sexual pathology, of the fulfilment of dangerous desires, of obsession and lust, a lurid study of the power that those perverse drives confer on both the object and the subject of those desires and how it differentiates men and women. That dark fascination of this Liebestod situation and conflict is there in Strauss’ orchestration, the composer scoring directly in response to the flow and the tone of Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Wilde’s drama, and the music is accordingly intense, intimate, perverse and disturbing, but with a romantic sweep that captures the grander epic nature of the lurid melodrama.
In his notes for the production – included in the booklet with the DVD/BD – Lehnhoff refers to the idea of the setting as taking place on the edge of a volcano. Whether this is meaningful to the viewer or not, it proves to be an effective analogy that not only suits the music and the drama, but gives it the appropriate space to work within without becoming over-imposing. Initially, the characters and the action take place on the outer rim of the stage, but gradually, as the focus of the drama and the music tightens on the nature of Salome, Jochanaan and Herod, the drama moves to the centre of this cauldron towards the centre piece Dance of the Seven Veils and a conclusion that shocked the censors back in 1905 and which still has a tremendous impact today. The tone of the production is vital to support the impact of these two key scenes, which should be dark, melancholy and perversely sordid as well as erotically suggestive, and that’s certainly the case here. The head of Jochanaan is also, I have to say, one of the most frighteningly realistic I’ve ever seen in a production of Salome. Theatrical prosthetics have come a long way over the years.
The approach to the tone of the drama and the music and how it is reflected is important, but equally as important is how it is interpreted. The cast assembled here for the Baden-Baden production deliver superb performances to match the attentive detail that is brought out of the score by the orchestra under Stefan Soltesz. Angela Denoke plays Salome as if she is in thrall to the bizarre situation and the potential that it suggests, and that suits the production perfectly. There’s a rising intensity in the performance that is in line with the score and she seems to be attuned to the slightest variations of tone within it. Alan Held is a rather more animated Jochanaan than others I have seen, less mystical and more of a firebrand prophet, and that works well with the heightened aggression on display. The singing is extremely good elsewhere, from Kim Begley as Herod and Doris Soffel as Herodias, but Marcel Reijans and Jurgita Adamonyte also make an impression in the smaller parts of Narraboth and the Page.
The Blu-ray from Arthaus is of the usual exceptionally high standards. The image is crystal clear to catch the full lighting, colour and contrasts of the set. The audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, breathtaking in High Definition clarity. This is really an amazing way to view and listen to this extraordinary work. The production, incidentally, is clearly a live performance, but there are no signs of an audience being present at the opening or close of this one-act opera – much like the Lehnhoff sister production of Elektra for Baden-Baden, already available on DVD. There are no extra features, but the booklet contains a good essay on the work, a full synopsis and notes on the production by the director. The disc is BD25, region-free, 1080i full-HD, subtitles are German, English, Italian, French, Spanish and Korean.