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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome (1905) [112:00]
Nadja Michael (soprano) – Salome
Thomas Moser (tenor) – Herod
Michaela Schuster (mezzo) – Herodias
Joseph Kaiser (tenor) – Narraboth
Michael Volle (baritone) – Jokanaan
Daniela Sindram (soprano) – Page to Herodias
Christian Sist (baritone) – Soldier
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Philippe Jordan
rec. live, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, March 2008
Director: David McVicar
David McVicar: A Work in Progress (ITV Documentary on McVicar and work on Salome) [51:00]
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio: 16:9; LPCM Stereo; DTS 5.1 Surround
OPUS ARTE OA0996 D [2 DVDs: 163:00]
Experience Classicsonline

One of the most hotly anticipated, controversial and downright exciting opera productions of this year arrives quickly onto DVD. David McVicar, one of the most in-demand opera directors at work today, produces a visceral, exciting realisation of Strauss’s lurid masterpiece. It has lots to recommend it, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste.

McVicar has moved from an enfant terrible of the operatic world to being one of its safest pairs of hands. He has a reputation for being meticulous in his attention to detail, and he begins and ends with an intimate knowledge of the score. This translates into a close relationship with his collaborators: singers, designers, choreographers et al, something illustrated in a hugely enjoyable South Bank Show Documentary included here as a DVD extra. McVicar is interested in every aspect of a production: design, acting and music, and his recent work in this country has been revelatory, such as the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare, the Covent Garden Faust and ENO’s Clemenza di Tito. One of the things that marks him out as remarkable is the way in which he builds his productions around certain visual themes, and it is instructive that his main reference point here is not Biblical Palestine, but Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò, based on the Marquis de Sade, which charts the descent into degeneracy of a group of oligarchs in fascist Italy. McVicar’s main focus in this production, then, is the depravity that runs through Salome’s story. Yes, the sensuousness and allure so evident in Strauss’s music are there, but they share the stage with - and are often eclipsed by - the sheer horror of the action.

With the opening gurgle on the clarinet the curtain draws back very slowly, like a suggestive striptease. In the very top part of the stage we can just make out Herod entertaining his guests at a riotous banquet. The main action takes place below stairs, however, in a large chamber, halfway between a communal bathroom and a slaughterhouse. It would be difficult to imagine a more inappropriate venue for Herod to move his dinner party into, which renders it all the more shocking when he does so. References to sex and death hit the viewer immediately. Two naked women (whores?) languish around the stage, but the most disquieting thing is that no-one pays the slightest bit of attention to them, presumably because it is so commonplace. Servants swab down the floors, perhaps to remove the evidence of some earlier debauchery, while the carcass of an animal swings in the background. The scene is lit with the naked light-bulbs of the torture chamber. This gritty, unsettling room is the prison in which not only the characters but we as viewers are confined for the next 100 minutes, and the claustrophobia adds to the our sense of growing horror as the opera builds to its climax.

The below stairs staff, mostly dressed as fascist-era soldiers, seem cold and disinterested in their surroundings, which makes the young Narraboth, sensuously sung by Joseph Kaiser, stand out all the more as he strains round the banister for a glimpse of the princess. Herodias’ page, who is just as obsessed with him, echoes his body language in trying to get his attention. Salome, in contrast to the prevailing darkness in the chamber, wears a glittering white evening dress with jewels. Nadja Michael is a marvellous actress here: far from being a sex-obsessed harpy, she begins the evening as a bored girl who throws chairs around like a petulant child. It is only after being exposed to the dark force of nature in Jokanaan that she becomes sexual and full of desire. Her singing is superb. She is entirely girlish at the start, developing a powerful edge to her voice only when necessary, such as in her cursing of Jokanaan’s body and hair. In fact the moments when she is not singing are almost as exciting as her big scenes: she gazes into the cistern, transfixed by its murky gloom, with a morbid fascination.

She seems vulnerable rather than icy after her encounter with John, clearly distressed by his curse on her, but still fixated. Equally, during the squabble of the Jewish factions, staged excitingly and comically, she merely gazes out at the audience, clearly milling over her new obsession with Jokanaan. Her hypnotic stage presence is one of the great strengths of this DVD.

Michael Volle’s Jokanaan also exerts a powerful charisma too. He emerges from the cistern as a victim of torture, blinking after the darkness of solitary confinement, yet the presence he exerts is so palpable as to stop Narraboth in his tracks as he goes to strike him. He sounds fantastically resonant as his voice echoes from the cistern, and he is really hair-raising at the top and middle of his range during his long scene with Salome. He is weaker at the bottom, however, and some of his lower notes can turn into growls. Tellingly, most of the servants avert their eyes during Salome’s attempt to seduce John, a clear indication of how depraved their encounter is as not even these desensitised regulars can bear to look at it.

One of the production’s strengths is the way McVicar picks up on the eroticism of death, so apparent in Wilde’s text. Salome barely notices Narraboth until after his suicide - to which no-one pays the blindest bit of attention - when she become fascinated with his corpse. Intriguingly, the same is true for Herod whose first action upon noticing the body is to caress it with his hand and gaze on it longingly. The sexual free-for-all in Herod’s house is also apparent in the all too sensuous way in which he caresses his favourite (male) servant. As Herod, Thomas Moser fits into McVicar’s vision a little awkwardly. His acting is decidedly of a lower level than the others, though it picks up during the Dance of the Seven Veils. Moser’s voice is also a bit thin compared to the others, understandable, perhaps, in such a demanding role, but disappointing against the high standards elsewhere. Michaela Schuster sounds good as Herodias, but her acting too is rather tame. Her relationship with Herod does not carry the venomous loathing suggested in the text, and she seems bored rather than vicious, though perhaps that is McVicar’s point.

The most striking and controversial element of McVicar’s vision is the Dance of the Seven Veils. This is a private dance for Herod, not the party guests, and as it begins the scene melts away and we are taken on a psychological journey rather than a display of choreography. McVicar’s idea is to take us through seven rooms, each one representing an aspect of Salome’s emotional state, each one taking us deeper into her interior self and suggesting that Herod has been, in McVicar’s words, a "specifically unhealthy influence" on her. We start seeing Herod "grooming" her with children’s toys, enticing her to sit on his knee, and touching her suggestively. Through each room the closeness of their contact increases and their dance intensifies, until the final room where she desperately splashes herself with water in an attempt to clean herself from the dirt of her stepfather’s abuse. Not everyone will approve, but I found this an inventive, challenging and deeply unsettling interpretation of the dance. Here the power to shock goes far deeper than a mere striptease.

The final scene shows us both the most and least successful aspects of the production. Visually speaking this is the peak to which the whole performance has been leading. On Herod’s order the executioner, who has been prowling the stage all evening long, just in case anyone needs to be killed, is stripped of his coat and descends naked into the cistern carrying only his huge blade. He then emerges covered in blood, holding the head which has blood oozing from its severed neck. Salome, by now wearing only a plain white night-dress, rubs herself against him and grabs the head; the blood slowly spreads to all over her night-dress and face, representing a steady descent into the utmost depravity as she sings her bizarre song of lust. The colour, imagery and movement of this scene are genuinely stunning and they make for a jaw-dropping tableau which fits Strauss’s music perfectly. Michael’s acting is superb here, and she makes us believe that Salome has fulfilled not just her desire but her life: hypnotised by her own passion, death is the only natural response after such consummation. It is in her singing, however, that this scene falls down. The exertions of the long evening have taken their toll and there is a distinct feeling that she has run out of steam by the time we get to this most demanding, climactic moment. Too many notes go flat and her sense of vocal line begins to fragment, a real pity considering her achievements earlier in the evening. That said, the eroticism of the kiss itself is spellbinding and I can forgive the vocal imperfections in the face of the way she so fully inhabits the character.

The star of this opera is the orchestra, and the Covent Garden forces play at the peak of their form. What’s more, the sound engineering and the balance mean that we can hear everything in Strauss’s astonishing orchestration. For an example, try the spiky moment when Salome curses John’s hair as being "like a crown of thorns" and the prickly harps play some discordant top notes by way of illustration: we hear these perfectly rather than their being subsumed into the orchestral fabric. Philippe Jordan’s is a hard-driven view of the score. He keeps his foot on the pedal through the most exciting moments, such as the Dance, and perhaps misses a little of the subtlety in this marvellous score. He does spotlight detail well, though. Top marks, too, to the video director who always places our eyes where our ears tell them that they want to be, with appropriate uses of close-up as well as the bigger picture.

In spite of its flaws I found this Salome compelling, exciting and visceral. As a film it probably takes a back seat to Götz Friedrich’s 1974 version with Teresa Stratas and Karl Böhm, though the comparison is a bit unfair as Friedrich’s version was conceived as a film rather than a stage production. Nor is it entirely satisfying as sound: Solti’s classic performance for Decca with Nilsson, Waechter and Stolze (an astonishing Herod) contains more consistent performances, as does Sinopoli’s more recent version, most notable for a disarmingly girlish Cheryl Studer. If you want a current version in digital sound, however, this DVD has a lot to offer. Even if the vocal performances aren’t all they could be, the consistency and originality of McVicar’s vision make this an unforgettable experience, if only for the sheer, raw power of what you see. I keep using the word "visceral", and that’s exactly what this is: it blows apart your preconceptions of the work and puts them together in a profoundly disconcerting way. Unnerving as it is, this is a DVD I’ll be coming back to again and again.

Simon Thompson


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