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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome (1905)
Catherine Malfitano (sop) Salome
Bryn Terfel (bass-bar) Jochanaan
Kenneth Riegel (ten) Herodes
Anja Silja (mezzo-sop) Herodias
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Christoph von Dohnányi
Directed for the stage by Luc Bondy
Directed for video by Hans Hulscher
Recorded London 1997
5.1 DTS surround sound and stereo. Subtitles.
DECCA 074 105-9 [109.00]


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In Strauss's Salome, as in the original Oscar Wilde play on which it is based, the curtain rises to reveal figures on an outdoor terrace during a hot and steamy middle eastern, Mediterranean, moonlit night. The atmosphere is heavy with lust and death is not far away. Well that is how it ought to be. Not in this production. What we have is the opposite - an interior that looks darkish and cold with little colour. What light there is consists of a cold, white brightness that can be seen beyond what looks like the horizontal slats of some blinds. The producer no doubt has some deeply symbolic explanation for this. Some is obvious (I think), like those streaks of white light relating to the references the soldiers make about the white moon, Salome, and her virginity. The rest of it escapes me. Fortunately we have a score that paints a true picture from the very first bar with its slinky, rising clarinet run that in an instant suggests heat and sleaze.

In this Covent Garden rendering of what was originally a Salzburg production we have that all- too-common scenario of fine singers, players and conductor struggling to overcome the disadvantages the producer has imposed upon them. If you read in the booklet the interview that the producer, Luc Bondy, gave, then you will not be surprised as to why this should be. He says of the play, "I've never liked it". He expresses a totally negative attitude to the power of Wilde's verbal imagery in the text of the play (which Strauss had had translated quite straight into German from Wilde's French) and as for the deeply disturbing psychology behind the drama: that seems to have passed him by. "I had a flash of inspiration: we would turn it into an old fashioned thriller". And later, "In the end I enjoyed myself, which proves that you don't always have to like things much in order to do them.". Well at least we know his criterion for success. Pity about the rest of us. How did he get the job? Beats me.

The good news is that cast, players and conductor still manage to serve up, inspired by this most stunning of scores, a powerful dramatic experience.

Understandably, thanks to the cold setting, things take a little while to warm up. What facilitates the rise in heat is not so much Salome's entrance but Jochanaan's. Bryn Terfel emerges from his cistern every inch the Welsh second row forward (for readers from non rugby playing countries, this means a large, heavy, testosterone-charged snorting, sporting male aggressively committed to the task in hand). Strauss's characterisation of Jochanaan is often cited as one of the two main weaknesses in the opera. At worst he can seem a cardboard version of a boring, ranting, sexless prig. The music Strauss writes for him is of a pompous nature which seems fine to me and contrasts well with Salome's motives which are both short and flighty, and soaring. Terfel manages to portray, in spite of his ranting on about sins of the flesh, an electrically sensuous being. He rants with animal passion in a way I have never seen before. This makes Salome's obsession all the more convincing.

As for Salome, it is unreasonable to expect a soprano with the mature skills, vocal power and stamina required for the part to be someone who can convincingly look and act like a lithe, pubescent teen with her hormones out of control. In the main rival DVD - a previous Covent Garden production of 1992 - Maria Ewing gets as close as anyone could under the circumstances. Catherine Malfitano has a good stab at it and sings more securely than Ewing. She has a dark, sultry sensuality and acts convincingly. Her occasional manic, smiling expression is suitably chilling.

Any production's dance of the seven veils is bound to be a talking point. This is the second of the two weaknesses I referred to. The usual criticism is of its length which some people think distorts the otherwise taught structure of this one act opera. At worst it can be a bore. Malfitano does well what is asked of her but it is a bit tame, twirling a succession of cloths around while staying in the same reasonably respectable outfit throughout. Some interest is provided by Herod failing to resist leaping forward for a good, incestuous grope now and again. For a more authentic dance ending in the nuddy then Maria Ewing is available - as it were. Audience sensibilities are a factor here. Many years ago I witnessed a section of the Covent Garden audience boo, upset at Grace Bumbry's copulatory movements over the grating top of Jochanaan's cistern.

I mentioned Herod's groping. Kenneth Riegel played the part to Ewing as well as to Malfitano. Close your eyes and his interpretation is powerful and well sung. Open them and you will frequently see him charging around the stage like a demented cat with a flaming torch tied to its tale. To me, through overacting, this unnecessarily turns the part into more of a caricature than it needs to be. Anja Silja, on the other hand, steadily portrays Herodias as the manipulative bitch-mother from hell - or perhaps more appropriately, bitch-wife from hell.

As for the star of the show, the score, Christoph von Dohnányi coaxes fine playing from the orchestra, maintaining momentum and a sense of proportion whilst still maximising the climaxes. Strauss's music is often at risk of being overindulged by conductors and although von Dohnányi does slightly slow for the passing dramatic moment I would not class it as damaging overindulgence. In Strauss, you go to James Levine for that.

The main strength of the production for me though is the interaction between Malfitano and Terfel. I have never seen it come off in this way before. Although the characters have totally different agendas and are not really communicating, there is a convincing erotic aura enveloping both when they are together. When Jochanaan absent-mindedly puts his hand on Salome's knee you can easily imagine the equivalent of electric shock going through her body. At the end of their first great scene together when Jochanaan returns to the depths of his cistern, she slides forward on the ground after him, all but disappearing, until all you see is a pair of petulantly kicking bare feet. A nice touch. If that was producer Bondy's idea, I give him credit.

So apart from the confused sets and production values, this is an impressive all-round performance. When I first became acquainted with this work I thought it must be one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre ever contrived. That was a long time ago and I now have countless more operas under my belt. This may not be an ideal production, but witnessing Christoph Von Dohnányi steering the performance through its hectic course, and unerringly heading for the devastating climax with Malfitano's soliloquy, I remain as convinced as ever of its greatness.

For DVD purchasers, then it is this or Peter Hall's production with Maria Ewing under Edward Downes. I have outlined what I think the strengths of this one. However, if it is the necrophiliac-teen-on-heat aspect of the drama that turns you on, then you probably need Maria Ewing.

John Leeman

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