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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome (1905)
Catherine Malfitano (sop) - Salome
Simon Estes (bass-bar) - Jochanaan
Horst Hiestermann (ten) - Herod
Leonie Rysanek (mezzo) - Herodias
Clemens Bieber (ten) -Narraboth
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin/ Giuseppe Sinopoli
Directed for the stage by Petr Weigl
Directed for video by Brian Large
Recorded Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 1990
NTSC 4:3, Regions 2, 3, 4, 5
NVC ARTS 9031-73827-2 [108:00]

In its VHS days this was always highly regarded as one of the best Salomes on film and many Straussians have been yelling for the DVD. Well, it’s finally here and there’s much to celebrate, though there are qualifications, of which more later.

Having seen it a number of times in the theatre, I think it’s fair to say that, rather like Traviata, this opera stands or falls by its central female portrayal. Strauss burdened the part with enormous vocal, technical and emotional demands – indeed, it is nothing short of a tour de force, made even greater by the fact that Salome is meant to be a teenager. Of course, this is impossible in reality, but the best productions cast a singing actress who at least looks reasonably young and attractive and therefore believable.

This is where Catherine Malfitano scores immediately. During the late 1980s and early 1990s she was at the height of her powers and made this part virtually her own around the world. She was probably only rivalled by Maria Ewing who, on DVD at least, is no match vocally for Malfitano. This 1990 Deutscher Oper production from Petr Weigl and Giuseppe Sinopoli catches both Malfitano and the conductor on peak form.

The first success on curtain-up is Josef Svoboda’s naturalistic Middle Eastern set, its white, square palace buildings having a hint of rough-edged decay, together with flights of steps that come and go like a drawing by Escher. A huge pale moon dominates the backdrop, its degrees of illumination seeming to come and go with the characters’ mood-swings, or maybe even reflect or influence them. Costumes also look in period, tending towards pale or dark, except for Salome’s blood red cloak – symbolically donned after her dance - and her mother’s similarly tinted gown. The general look of the stage picture is pretty much as Strauss wanted it, and a far cry from the dark and dingy interior in Luc Bondy’s Covent Garden production from a few years later and also starring Malfitano.

Indeed, many lovers of the opera may already have that set, well conducted by Christoph Dohnányi and released on DVD last year. It is probably the main rival here, but I have to say that, musically and dramatically, I do find this earlier German production more convincing overall. Malfitano is a few years younger and is simply in better voice, to say nothing of looking in her prime. Some complained of her excessive vibrato at Covent Garden, but for Sinopoli the voice is steady, firm and rings out thrillingly even in the most taxing passages, such as the long final scene. Her acting is entirely credible, running the gamut from coquettish, child-like vulnerability, through manipulative minx to, finally, crazed obsessive. She often appears to be in a manic trance as she strives to get her way, yet she is always in control. The infamous Dance of the Seven Veils is far more sexy and believable than at Covent Garden. Weigl’s choreographer, Bernd Schindowski, has fashioned a wonderfully stylized routine that ends with her baring all and, for once, one can realize why the sweaty, lascivious Herod is completely overwhelmed and caves in. One can also understand why he orders her death at the end - again stylized here as an effective silhouette - as this Salome positively relishes a repulsively lingering kiss on the lips of Jochanaan’s severed head. It is truly a great piece of operatic acting, and still shocks as surely as Strauss intended.

Talking of Jochanaan, I also find Simon Estes more noble and in firmer voice than Bryn Terfel. How different are their two entrances, the Welshman dirty and dishevelled, writhing on the floor as he adjusts to the light - which is actually lacking in the production. Estes, by contrast, boldly but slightly falteringly climbs the steps and, his commanding figure etched against the huge moon, begins his monologue. It may be less ‘realistic’ by modern theatre convention, but it’s mightily effective operatically, and his aloofness only serves to heighten Salome’s frustration.

The Herod of Horst Hiestermann is less hysterical and caricatured than usual, the singer grading his performance and building towards the awful decision he is compelled to make. The voice has a slightly strained quality above the stave – Kenneth Riegl at Covent Garden is a touch more open vocally – but the phrasing is musical and the acting more convincing than Riegl’s.

Leonie Rysanek, once a famous Salome herself, clearly enjoys herself as the truly awful Herodias. I also liked Clemens Bieber’s Narraboth, a small but difficult part, and his suicide is better handled by Weigl than in some productions.

Sinopoli’s conducting of this famous score is truly memorable. He lets more light into the thick orchestration than is often the case, obviously taking on board Strauss’s own views on how it should be handled. This then gives the big, heavy climaxes the massive impact they need. I always admired his Mahler cycle more than most, and he was very much at home in this repertoire. The studio recording of Salome that came shortly after this production, with Malfitano replaced by Cheryl Studer for contractual reasons and Terfel replacing Estes, is often cited as the safest all-round recommendation. Sinopoli is a tad more flexible than Dohnányi, less aggressive than Solti, but the voltage is no less high where it matters. Try the execution scene, for example, where the tension is screwed up to breaking point. I’ve never been more aware of the score sounding, as the composer laconically put it, ‘like a scherzo with a fatal conclusion’.

So all’s well on the artistic front and Brian Large’s experienced camera knows just when to pull back and close in, even if he does capture a lot of the annoying and occasionally shaky follow-spot that seems to accompany Salome everywhere. Unfortunately, potential purchasers need to be aware of one major technical glitch. Just before the build up to Salome’s Dance (between chapters 6 and 7) the screen goes black for a couple of seconds before resuming. It may not bother some, but it is enough to dissipate tension at a crucial moment. Warner says it’s on the original tape and nothing can be done, but I refuse to believe, in this age of technical wizardry, that some sort of editing procedure couldn’t have eliminated it, or at least made the fault a bit less obvious. Add to that NVC’s usual makeshift packaging, sound and picture quality that seem, to me, not as sharp or full as Dohnányi’s, and you have a potential winner slightly blighted.

For my own part, the artistic side is enough to make me recommend it, especially for Malfitano’s title role, Sinopoli’s supple conducting and a gimmick-free production that Strauss himself would have recognized - in this day and age, no bad thing.

Tony Haywood

 

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See also Salome: That shocking Opera by Len Mullenger

 

 



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