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S & H Opera Review

Richard Strauss, Salome, soloists, London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Hickox, Barbican 30th March 2003 (MB)

Salome – 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 was here.

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’ scoring.

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.

Marc Bridle



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