Friday, 3 August 2018

Strauss - Salome (Salzburg, 2018)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Salzburg Festival, 2018

Franz Welser-Möst, Romeo Castellucci, John Daszak, Anna Maria Chiuri, Asmik Grigorian, Gábor Bretz, Julian Prégardien, Avery Amereau


There comes a point in a Romeo Castellucci production when you wonder if it's worth the effort trying to make sense of it. It's not that they don't have meaning and value, Castellucci's productions are original, striking and do often find a new way of looking at a familiar work, but there are strange elements within that defy any attempt to pin them down or directly relate them to the works in question. Even when the director provides you with some pointers of where he is coming from, you can't always follow where he is takes it. Ultimately however, it fits or it doesn't, it will work for some and not for others. His Salzburg Festival production of Salome presents the same issues and is likely to similarly split audiences.

Salome for Salzburg is typical Castellucci in that respect at least. Some of the director's familiar techniques and obscure images are in there, but the production is not just a rehash of familiar tricks and tics, and - unlike a director with a singular vision like Robert Wilson for example - he doesn't try to force each opera to fit into their distinct worldview, but rather approaches it on it own terms, even if there is sometimes a similar visual aesthetic. This production is very much a response to Salome, even if inevitably it doesn't entirely match the familiar imagery and stage directions that we are accustomed to expect on some level with this opera, and even if it can appear somewhat obscure and occasionally even baffling.

In fact, rather more than most directors who take a work on its own terms, Castellucci is also known for taking the location into consideration and making it part of the production. Not that you really have much choice when it comes to the Felsenreitschule venue in Salzburg, an open air riding school carved into the very rock of the city. There's a reference here then to a Latin inscription carved above the nearby Sigmundstor or Neutor Tunnel 'Te Saxa Loquuntor' ('The Stones are talking of you') that Castellucci employs as a distinctive way to consider the work in terms of its Salzburg production, but what it means is anyone's guess, and easier to describe than interpret.

The location itself is of course spectacular in its own right, even if it's just for scale and atmosphere. The arcades are actually blocked off here to form a more solid surrounding wall, with openings used occasionally for entrances, exits and props. If nothing else it gives 'presence' to the flow and decadence of Oscar Wilde's original text and the taboo-breaking nature of the content that is in line with the employment of Strauss's musical forces. The detail of the composer's attempts to account for the line-by-line control of mood and subtext is where Castellucci perhaps has more of his own personal views and ways of presenting it.

You expect eccentric touches and they are most obviously there with the lower half of everyone face painted red. Everyone that is except Herodias, who is painted green for some reason and Salome, whose face is not painted, but who is marked out in contrast to everyone else by her virginal white appearance. Virginal is very much suggested by the opening scene before the music starts, showing her as little more than a child - whether it's a flashback or a suggestion of her real age is unknown - who cuts through the veil that presents the Sigmundstor Latin inscription. The back of Salome's dress when she appears in the opera appears to be stained with menstrual blood. If it was any other kind of blood, I think we'd know about it from the production and her protective and vocal mother Herodias might have had something to say about it.

The other significant person in the work of course is Jokanaan, or the prophet John the Baptist, whose voice does indeed appear to talk of you from the stones (Te saxa loquuntor), imprisoned below the floor in a cistern. His face is painted black, making his first encounter with Salome very effective indeed; she slight and delicate in white, eclipsed by the dark, wild, primitive and almost bear-like mass of Jokanaan, a man who had lived in the wilderness. Indeed there is an eclipse of sorts, with a huge black circle that overwhelms and enfolds their first encounter. Reinforcing his wild erotic presence, a live horse can be seen rearing out of the circular pit that holds him. So far so much is mostly just giving emphasis to the forces at work in the opera, forces that are most definitely there in the sinister, sinuous, beautiful and violent music, the Vienna Philharmonica well conducted through that variety of moods and colours by Franz Welser-Möst.

The other strange and confusing touches in the production relate to and contrast with how we expect to see the more iconic scenes of the work. During the Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome doesn't actually dance (heaven forbid that Castellucci should be so literal), but instead she kneels head down semi-naked on a plinth with the word SAXA written on it, while a block of stone is lowered 'crushing' her beneath it. Feel free to interpret that how you like. Instead of Jokanaan's head being presented on a silver charger, we have Jokanaan's naked decapitated full torso, with the head of a horse (presented as a first appeal to Salome to change her mind) left beside it in a shallow pool of white liquid. As far as taboo-breaking goes, you would expect an animal head to have additional shock impact and hint at illicit desires - which you should really be aiming for at the conclusion of this opera - but neither the thunderous cacophony of the closing notes nor the staging really make the necessary impact here.

That perhaps doesn't matter as much when the performances have been intense elsewhere throughout (although I do think that the impact of the conclusion should be viscerally felt). Asmik Grigorian certainly carries the kind of soaring intensity that the opera's Salome ought to have, reaching the luxurious heights and the depraved depths of the work. Herod and Herodias can sometimes be given to older singers just past their prime, but that's not the case here with John Daszak and Anna Maria Chiuri. Daszak isn't ideal but does carry a suitable haunted quality. Chiuri is spectacular, giving this Herodias a lot more input than usual. Gábor Bretz is not the most sonorous Jokanaan, but again his presence is felt. I'm not sure that Castellucci has any great vision for the work or the characters, but he certainly gets to the heart of their natures, working with the opera and the location to bring his usual unique qualities and intensity to this Salzburg production.

Links: Salzburg Festival, Medici.TV