Salome, Richard Strauss
Salome, Richard Strauss, Deutsche Oper Berlin, April 2016. Director Claus Guth (revival director: William Robertson), Das Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin conducted by Alain Altinoglu. Reviewed by Tony Cooper
First performed at the Hofoper, Dresden, in 1905, Richard Strauss’ one-act opera Salomé was part of Deutsche Oper’s mini-Strauss fest (five operas in the same amount of days) which has been a highly successful venture with capacity houses.
Set to a German libretto based on Hedwig Lachmann’s translation of the play Salomé by Oscar Wilde, the opera was famous (at the time of its première, infamous) for the erotically-charged ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ but in this production eroticism was nowhere to be seen.
This would have pleased the original Salomé, Marie Wittich, an outstanding singer who worked at the Dresden Royal Opera for a quarter of a century. She refused point blank to perform the ritualistic dance and a trained dancer had to take her place.
The opera courted controversy from the outset and was banned in London by the Lord Chamberlain’s office until 1907. Sir Thomas Beecham presided over its first performance staged at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in December 1910.
Claus Guth (revival director: William Robertson) delivered a thought-provoking production that was different and certainly challenging. For instance, six young characters represented Salomé ranging from early childhood to young adulthood.
And later in the opera King Herod is seen as the proprietor of a bespoke tailor and outfitters’ shop while many of the main characters are portrayed as statuesque figures resembling tailors’ dummies.
Only one of the junior team enjoyed a singing role while the other members were engaged in such activities as removing corpses or taking part in the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, in a sequence reminiscent of Strictly.
In Strauss’ view, Salomé should appear like ‘a 16-year-old girl with the mature voice of a character such as Isolde’. The English-born soprano from Stoke-on-Trent, Allison Oakes (who now lives in Berlin), certainly fitted that description. Ms Oakes – who indeed commenced the current season making her début as Isolde at Theater Dortmund and will be returning to Bayreuth this summer reprising the role of Gutrune in Götterdämmerung – was a joy not only to listen to but to watch, for her dramatic presentation matched her vocal shrewdness.
In the opening scene we see the hedonistic life of the court of Herod, who is married to Salomé’s mother, Herodias, the former wife of his brother, but is sexually attracted to Salomé and considers making her his Queen.
But Salomé has a different agenda and harbours a bizarre sexual fascination for Jochanaan who is kept in solitary confinement by Herod living partially clothed in a dingy cell. When he emerges from it to take his place at court, he rises from beneath a pile of old clothes to condemn the profanities of the court and to urge its members to change their wayward ways and seek redemption.
One striking aspect to Herod in this production is his sartorial elegance and the male members of his court were duly suited in the latest fashion. In due course, Jochanaan is dressed in a light-grey three-piece suit to match that worn by his captor.
German baritone Michael Volle put in a commanding performance as Jochanaan. His imposing physical frame combined with his deeply-etched facial features were reminiscent of Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpiece The Beheading of St John the Baptist, while his strong, wide-ranging baritone voice was perfect.
Belgian tenor, Thomas Blondelle, as Herod, interpreted this pivotal role in an un-nerving way, especially when pressed by Salomé for the head of Jochanaan. At one moment coming on strong, at another offering her anything but the prized head that she desires. She declines all his offers from white peacocks to precious jewels. In the end, she decapitates Jochanaan with one stroke – another twist to this well-chronicled biblical story.
Dramatic soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet – a force to be reckoned with in German and contemporary repertoires, it would seem – surpassed herself as the wife of Herod, portraying the role as a loving and devoted wife, enjoying the trappings of life style that only a powerful husband can bring.
In the pit, the Deutsche Oper orchestra was firmly and authoritatively conducted by Alain Altinoglu who delivered a fine reading of Strauss’ score performed by a company of musicians who have evidently been brought up on the music of Strauss and Wagner.
Tony Cooper has worked across the field of publishing and the arts for a number of years writing mainly for Archant newspaper group based in his home city of Norwich. Nowadays, he focuses on opera and classical music. He is a passionate admirer of the works of Richard Strauss and Wagner