Thursday, 24 April 2014

Strauss - Salome (Bologna 2010 - Blu-ray)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Teatro Comunale di Bologna, 2010

Nicola Luisotti, Gabriele Lavia, Erika Sunnegårdh, Mark S. Doss, Robert Brubaker, Dalia Schaechter, Mark Milhofer, Nora Sourouzian, Gabriele Mangione, Paolo Cauteruccio, Dario Di Vietri

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

It may be a little unfair on the composer of Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten, but Richard Strauss's critical reputation and musical influence on the modern opera probably rests more on his earlier stark, expressionist one-act tone-poem operas Salome and Elektra. In the year when the composer's 150th anniversary is being celebrated, there's no doubt that those other works will receive renewed critical attention and re-evaluation, but for sheer visceral impact, none of them can match these two early masterpieces.

Although Strauss would abandon his harsh experiments with the form after these two extraordinary works, there's no denying the profound influence these boundary-pushing works would have on atonality and serialism in music and the direction of opera in the 20th century. I don't think Strauss entirely abandoned the use of dissonance either when it could be used for effect in his neo-Romantic works, and by the same token, it's also possible to recognise the sweep of high Romanticism in the crushing crescendos of those highly charged mental landscapes of Elektra and Salome.

Salome in particular, as the composer's first foray into this new and unexplored territory, still has that impact of shock and awe in the sheer force of its musical expression. Undoubtedly, the method developed by Richard Strauss was a direct response to Oscar Wilde's deliciously decadent play that was the source for Hedwig Lachmann's libretto for the opera. Strauss aligns the music to the text with unerring precision for its mood, drama and psychological content, creating a work of extraordinary contrasts in its extreme love/hate relationships.

On the one side you have the lush orchestration for the flowery language and rapturous declarations of Salome's appeals to Jochanaan, and on the other you have the harsh dissonance that clashes with the vicious barbs she throws at him when those advances are rejected. Similarly, there is the lush exotic Eastern-influenced orchestration of Salome's dance that nonetheless carries a faintly disturbing undertone for how it is being enjoyed by her step-father, Herod. Even John the Baptist's auguries and admonitions have a fanatical flavour behind them that is reflected brilliantly in Strauss' music and contrasted strongly with the bickering of the Jews and the behaviour of Herod and Herodias.

In that respect, Salome is much more a product of the time of its creation than it is a biblical story, with there being a strong influence of late 19th to turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese philosophical and psychoanalytical thought, and even a measure of fin-de-siècle decadence. And it's perhaps with that in mind that Gabriele Lavia updates the period of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna production to Strauss' time, with soldiers wearing period military uniforms with helmets and lances, and Salome looking like she stepped out of the ballroom from a production of Arabella.

Salome doesn't appear to gain anything though this updating, but it looks good and matches the dark mood of the piece well. The stage for the most part remains stark and bare, the floor of Herod's palace a jagged stepping of shattered red marble. Jochanaan is hauled up out of a crack in the floor enchained and in a cage. It's simple and effective, the darkness of the night time scenes gradually brightening as events unfold. Other than the addition of a sofa for Herod, the only other real prop is a large magnifying glass that amplifies the emotional and erotic tension that develops. The bringing of the head of Jochanaan is handled differently, with a large stone monumental head arising out of the stage, but alongside the hanging decapitated body (and Strauss's score) it is still a suitably and floridly gruesome conclusion.

Musically, it's initially hard to distinguish the detail in the somewhat echoing sound mixes, but Nichola Luisotti seems bring out that important balance between the lush orchestration and the cutting edge of the rising dissonance. It's played and sung with wonderfully compelling fluidity, gripping you and holding you right through to the conclusion that should always leave you semi-stunned and breathless. That's certainly achieved here.

The singing is clear, powerful and resonant across the board here. Everyone sings with perfect clarity, strong declamation, but with fine control of expression and diction. Evidently, much relies on the cast in the roles of Salome and Jochanaan, and those are very well covered here. Erika Sunnegårdh has strong presence as Salome, handling the singing challenges of the role and fitting well within the nature of the production. Mark S. Doss is a suitably grave, deeply-intoned Jochanaan, but with superb clarity and force of expression. The fact that we also have a strong Herod in Robert Brubaker and an impressive Heriodias as well with Dalia Schaechter is a bonus.

The Blu-ray from Arthaus looks terrific on a BD25, region-free disc. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround track tends to give more space to the ambience with the result that it sounds a bit indistinct and echoing in places. The LPCM 2.0 track is 'bright' but more focussed and sounds better through headphones. There are no extra features other than trailers for other releases. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.