Bayerischen Theaterakademie, Prinzregententheater - Munich 2014
Ulf Schirmer, Balázs Kovalik, Anna Maria Thoma, Eric Ander, Idunnu Münch, Heeyun Choi, Ingyu Hwang
BR-KLASSIK Web Streaming - 28 February 2014
One of the most pleasant and unexpected rediscoveries made during the 150th anniversary celebrations of Richard Strauss is actually likely to be not one of the composer's own works, but that of a little-known French contemporary of Strauss, Antoine Mariotte. Mariotte's claim to fame, and in most cases the only reason his name is remembered at all nowadays, is that he had the idea to write an opera based on Oscar Wilde's 'Salomé' at the same time as Strauss but unfortunately failed to secure the rights to the work.
The opportunity to see a very rare performance of the work, performed at the Prinzregententheater in Munich and broadcast by the Bavarian radio station BR-KLASSIK, suggests that the subsequent fall into obscurity of Mariotte's French version of Salomé has less to do with the quality of the work than the fact that it became tied up in legal problems that prevented it becoming more widely known. It was permitted one presentation in Lyon in 1908, after which all copies of the work were to be destroyed. Fortunately, more favourable terms were eventually agreed upon, but the work would never have been allowed the same exposure as the approved version by Richard Strauss.
While this new production of the work in Munich proves that Mariotte's Salomé is by no means an inferior work and undoubtedly unjustly neglected, it's also evident that Strauss's opera is by far the bolder and more experimental of the two works. Strauss's one-act assault on the senses is not only more closely attuned to the dark psychology of the characters in Wilde's provocative drama, but it similarly set out to challenge conventional morality as well as the conventions of the artform. Written in 1891, Wilde wrote 'Salomé' without any real intention of it ever being performed, since the depiction of Biblical characters on the stage was prohibited in England by the censor. The work however unexpected enjoyed great success in both France and Germany, where it was seen by Richard Strauss. It in turn would inspire Strauss to make a musical leap that would prove to be immensely influential on the course of music in the 20th century.
By way of contrast, Mariotte's Salomé resides within the post-Wagnerian Romantic world, its lush arrangements and chromaticism reminiscent of Franz Schreker's decadent Entartete works (Die Gezeichneten), but with a intimacy and tone in its setting of French drama to music that inevitably brings Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande to mind. (Maurice Maeterlinck moreover being one of Wilde's dramatic influences here). As such, Mariotte seems to be more evidently in tune with the decadent and florid language of Wilde's play, which was actually written in French and lifted straight off the page by Mariotte. It seems like a perfect fit, and in many ways it is. It just isn't Strauss. It doesn't have the same dangerous edge of insanity and the desire to break conventions that make Strauss's Salome a true masterpiece.
Mariotte's score for Salomé is however not without its own sense of decadence and dissonance. The first encounter between Salomé and Iokanaan, for example, is quietly seductive as Salomé sings "Iokanaan. Je suis amoureuse de ton corp", but at the same time there are low discordant notes underlying this phrase that suggest that there's a darker and more perverse intent behind them. The use of the original French dialogue helps, although Wilde's often non-idiomatic French is heavily cut, mostly to remove repetition. Repetition is a device that Wilde uses consciously, but it's perhaps not as necessary when those sentiments are echoed in the music. Directed by Ulf Schirmer, a Strauss specialist and renowned for conducting German opera of this period, that's given a terrific account here.
Mariotte's interpretation most obviously differs from Strauss's version in the delivery of the sentiments expressed in the libretto. It's wonderfully scored for the voice in a way that makes the vital central encounter between Salomé and Iokanaan a highly charged one. The actual singing range is not as challenging and punishing as the contortions of Strauss's Salome, but it is certainly equally intimate, intense and dramatic, Mariotte choosing to close their encounter not with Salomé in a rage, but almost lamenting the outcome. Mariotte's version also tightens the focus, removing the scenes with the Jews and reducing the roles of Naraboth and the Page, yet somehow Strauss manages to use these scenes to heighten the sense of discord, corruption and menace.
Directed by Balázs Kovalik at the Prinzregententheater in Munich, the stage setting for this version of Salomé is clearly not Biblical period. Rather than be set within Herod's palace, it seems to all take place on the fire-escape outside it, the set a framework of interweaving steel staircases. It's a little more explicit where the actual text is vague, allusive and allegorical, although there are a few symbolic gestures. I'm not sure what is meant by the pink horse with an orange mane at the top of the staircase, but it's not unreasonable to show Salomé's split nature by using a young ballet dancer in one or two scenes, both of them dressed in black with a pink tutu.
There's little doubt about the corrupt and perverse sexual nature of the characters in this production (not that Wilde's suggestive phrases and Aubrey Beardsley's original illustrations were in any way ambiguous), since it is fully acted-out here. Naraboth's lustful voyeurism is indulged by Salomé here with the use of a direct video feed from underneath her skirt, and the curiously staged dance scene is also quite direct. While her young double enacts a dance of death with Iokanaan, the singing Salomé does a brief hand-jive while Herod lifts the layers of her tutu and removes her panties. Just so there's no question of what Herod's intent is, it's also fully enacted here in a bed alongside the dead body of Naraboth. There are plenty of sexual gestures then, but no actual nudity.
Interestingly, in Mariotte's version, Herod doesn't call out for Salomé's death at the end (the final line "Tuez cette femme!" is cut here), but it is carried out nonetheless in this production with Herod himself pulling the trigger. Regardless of the production and direction choices, its adherence to the words and the intent of the work is fairly accurate and dramatically effective. It's also very well sung with strong performances from Anna Maria Thoma as Salomé, Heeyun Choi as Iokanaan, Eric Ander as Hérode, Idunnu Münch as Hérodias and Ingyu Hwang as Naraboth. A sordid little bunch of despicable characters, you feel at the end of this eye-opening production of Mariotte's Salomé, which suggests that all the performers did their job very well.
BR-Klassik link - Mariotte - Salomé