Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Simone Young, Boleslaw Barlog, Herwig Pecoraro, Elisabeth Kulman, Catherine Naglestad, Tomasz Konieczny, Norbert Ernst, Ulrike Helzel, Jason Bridges, Michael Roider, James Kryshak, Benedikt Kobel, Ryan Speedo Green, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Clemens Unterreiner, Alfred Šramek, Il Hong, Jens Musger, Daniel Lökös
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 23 January 2015
It's strange to think that in a way it was Oscar Wilde who would be the inspiration that would change the face of music in the 20th century. Strange too to think that it would be a work like 'Salome', a play written in French in all of Wilde's purple poetry, although the play had already caused scandal and been banned for its decidedly unsavoury treatment of a Biblical subject. Richard Strauss' opera is a direct response to the lurid suggestion of the play and was subject to similar criticism and banning, but the most notable aspect of Salome is its revolutionary musical language.
Faithfully adapted, almost intact from a German translation of the work, it's the tone of the play itself that determines the nature and the gestures of the musical score for Richard Strauss' Salome. Salome doesn't go quite as far as the composer's subsequent opera Elektra in pushing the boundaries of tonality, but some of its discordance does lead the way towards modernism, serialism and atonality as a means of dramatic expression in opera, and in modern music in general. There would of course be other social upheavals after the war and composers like Schoenberg and Berg (both in the audience at Salome's 1906 Austrian premiere) who would take musical experiments much further after Strauss abandoned this direction.
To suggest that the music is merely a direct response to the subject is however to undervalue the insight and input of Richard Strauss. Another composer, Antoine Mariotte, composed an opera version of Salomé around the same time as Strauss (unfortunately neglecting to obtain the rights first), and the suggestive power of Wilde's play is evident in the extent that it influences Mariotte's version too, but comparison of the two works allows us to see just how vital the application of Strauss' personal sensibility and his ability as a composer was on the actual musical direction that his opera would take. There's little evidence of the composer's individuality coming through in the Wagnerian models followed in Guntram and Feuersnot, but in Salome Strauss finds a revolutionary new application for his tone poems.
The application of those vast forces of lush Wagnerian Romantic orchestration to the poetic language of Salome creates a striking and jarring effect. Trying to find a musical equivalent to the text's opposition of cruel sentiments wrapped up in florid, decadent imagery, Strauss comes up with an extraordinary sound that has little precedent, or at least not to this extent of expression. It is a genuine response to the text, not one that is purely illustrative or acting merely as a musical accompaniment, but music that seemingly plunges into the dark places that those sentiments arise from. Straight through, in one act, with nothing to break the intensity of the dramatic tension.
The nature of the subject doesn't just determine the approach of the music, but it also defines the dramatic presentation. When the libretto and the music is as expressionistic as this, it doesn't really need any more symbolism or stage effects. Strauss didn't feel the need to elaborate on the text of the play as much as explore and exploit its remarkable mood and setting, and it's useful if a production remains within those parameters too. There's not a whole lot to be gained from adding to the simplicity and sheer power of the work as it stands. Boleslaw Barlog's production for Vienna adheres closely enough to those requirements, allowing the work to express itself through the singing and musical interpretation.
The costumes and the period evoke the Biblical setting, by way perhaps of Gustav Klimt, which isn't entirely inappropriate to the fin-de-siècle philosophical and artistic origins of this work. With no harsh angles, the balcony leads down in curves to the pit that contains Jokanaan, John the Baptist. The colours are bold, lurid, with swirling patterns and costumes that trail off in circles. Having set the mood and given it an appropriate tone and colouration that suits the work, the stage directions scarcely deviate from the dramatic action. The direction itself focusses mainly on exploring and bringing out the characterisation of these monstrous figures as they are drawn in Wilde's play, and in Strauss' musical interpretation of them.
Principally that falls on Catherine Naglestad as Salome. Her voice has the right kind of Wagnerian firmness, but also much of the lyrical Straussian manner that is required as well. This allows her to switch between alluring persuasion and harsh imprecation, her cool hard timbre better suited to the latter admittedly, but she's strong right across the whole range. Tomasz Konieczny was a reliable Jokanaan, but not one that made a major impression in this production. Herod and Heriodias were however wonderfully sung and characterised. Herwig Pecoraro got across perfectly how Herod's weak-nature and nervous superstition is overcome only by the greater force of his lecherousness. The fearsome Herodias must also be placated however, and in that respect Elisabeth Kulman was formidable, never over-playing, terrorising with the tone and delivery of her pronouncements alone.
The Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home in HD season continues in February with broadcasts of SIMON BOCCANEGRA, TOSCA, ANDREA CHÉNIER, DON CARLO and an EDITA GRUBEROVA gala concert. Details of how to view these productions in the links below.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video