– Jane Eaglen
Jokanaan – Matthew Best
Herod – Peter Bronder
Herodias – Andrea Baker
Narraboth – James Gilchrist
It is questionable whether Strauss’
Salome works in concert performance. Whilst on the one hand we
benefit from orchestral detail often missed from the pit (for example,
the harps so clearly audible as Salome proclaims ‘Er ist schrecklich.
Er ist wirklich schrecklich’) it also remains true that the sheer scale
of Strauss’ orchestration often swamped the voices, even one as powerful
as Jane Eaglen’s in this, her first, Salome.
But there were other concessions
to be made. Matthew Best’s rather dour Jokanaan came first not from
the cistern, as it should, but from an open space above the orchestra.
Even microphoned (as he clearly was) the effect was not at all focussed
with much of what he sang virtually unintelligible, in part because
he was forced to sing with a constant reverberation clouding his voice.
He may well have been able to ride over the orchestra, when above it,
(and Jokanaan’s music is often accompanied by deep toned brass) but
his grasp of German was lamentable and this exacerbated his woes. It
also added very little to an assumption of the role which was fastidious
for its lack of drama.
His diction became more of a problem
when he was on stage with Salome. Even with a libretto in front of me
it was often impossible to discern what he was singing so garbled were
his words. Being overwhelmed by the orchestra came with the course.
That very moment when the harps entered to such ethereal effect was
preceded by just one example of Mr Best’s inability to spread his voice
widely enough to compensate for the orchestral balance (which admittedly
is not helped by Strauss’ orchestration, or, in this case, Richard Hickox’
emphatic conducting). From ‘vom Bette ihre Blutschande’ to ‘des Herren
ist in seiner Hand’ he was all but swamped by the LSO. In a rare example
of beauty in his voice (from ‘Tochter der unzucht’ to ‘und redet zu
seinen Jüngern’) he was almost convincing in his rejection of Salome’s
seduction, but that key line heralding the beginning of Scene IV (and
one of Strauss’ most magnificent pieces of orchestral writing) was underwhelming.
‘Du bist verflucht’ needs to be sung with much greater power than it
Jane Eaglen is not most people’s
ideal Salome but her performance was more persuasive than that of another
unlikely singer of the role, Jessye Norman. Although Ms Eaglen lacks
the sheer beauty of tone of Ms Norman (and especially the latter’s spellbinding
beauty and evenness of tone in the middle register) Ms Eaglen brought
something quite special to the final scene, a serene understanding of
the libretto allied with a voice more secure than it had been earlier
in the opera. Although she rather effortlessly brokered Strauss’ copious
top notes she often did so with a very steely edge to the voice (and
although her German is fallible, it was largely intelligible). By the
end of the opera this had been carefully controlled so when she sang
‘Wohl, ich werde ihn jetzt küssen’ it was with considerable balance
of tone (even if perhaps the final long note on ‘küssen’ was more
abbreviated than one would have liked). She surmounted Strauss’ vocal
difficulties superbly in the final scene and seemed less troubled by
the swell of the orchestra here than she had been elsewhere in the opera.
It was a performance which became more impressive – and grew in stature
– as the evening went on.
If both Mr Best and Ms Eaglen were
uneven in their own ways this was not the case with the Herod of Peter
Bronder and the Herodias of Andrea Baker. Both were outstanding, not
least because they attempted (even though this was a concert performance)
to bring some drama to the stage. Mr Bronder was less libretto bound
than any other singer (indeed, if he had not known his lines without
the use of one he would have missed his final cue after Salome’s final
scene) but he found the time to evoke not just through his voice, but
also through his acting, a genuinely oleaginous characterisation of
Herod. Ms Baker, so resplendent of voice, was simply a remarkable Herodias
seething with hatred for the Tetrarch and spurring on her daughter through
hate-inflected singing. The moment Herod asked where his ring had gone
Ms Baker rose from her seat almost as if she were about to rip it from
his fingers. Also notable was the Narraboth of James Gilchrist – one
of the few singers to find it easy to ride above the maelstrom of Strauss’
Overwhelming everything – both literally
and in terms of artistic achievement – was the London Symphony orchestra.
Richard Hickox’ relatively brisk tempo left little room for uneven breaks
in Strauss’ orchestration and if there was the occasional lingering
over key moments – such as the opening to the Dance of the Seven Veils
– they were not detrimental. Strauss’ instruction that this music should
be played like ‘fairy music’ was not always observed but there was no
moment more thrilling than Jokanaan’s return to the cistern which produced
playing of awesome power stretching the decibels to breathtaking limits.
On a smaller scale, the woodwind chants immediately after this tumultuous
episode were often peerless for their evocative scene-building and the
shrill double bass, playing beneath the bridge, that accompanies the
beginning of Salome’s final descent into depravity, was searing in its
relentlessness. Even though this score must be largely unfamiliar to
the LSO they played it with all the virtuosity and sumptuousness of
tone an ideal performance of it requires.
It was by some margin the finest
orchestral playing I have heard this year and set the seal on a thrilling,
but vocally mixed, performance.