a story of sex and violence involving a dysfunctional family.
Dad, nominally in charge of a Kingdom, suffers from paranoia
and is unable to focus properly on anything in particular apart
from his step-daughter after whom he lusts. She, the teen from
hell, is a mixed-up kid with hormones dangerously rising who
is sexually fixated on an unkempt eccentric who is locked up
in an underground dungeon. Her mother, the nagging wife from
hell, eggs on her daughter in order to annoy her husband. All
is bound to end in tears. But it turns out much worse than that
and by the end we have had, among other things, sexual blackmail,
variant necrophilia and three fatalities one of which involves
Dad killing his step-daughter.
The success of any
production of this opera is going to hinge on the portrayal
of Salome, however good other aspects of the staging may be.
What a casting nightmare. Where do you find a soprano who can
convince as a teenage girl who bowls over men with her allure
– from common soldiers to Kings; who has supreme acting ability,
is an expert dancer and has a voice of seductive lyricism. That
voice has to be able to ride over Strauss’s huge orchestra when
it comes to the increasing bombardment of high notes as the
end approaches. She must also have the stamina to survive a
performance ordeal from entrance a few minutes into the opera
and on to curtain without a break.
is probably as near as you could get to this balancing act,
certainly within living memory of opera buffs. Her age - at
the time of this filming she was around three times the age
of the young woman she is portraying - is a disadvantage she
overcomes magnificently so that most people, I suggest, would
forget the issue once they are stuck into the performance. This
is not just the acting but physical endowment as well, for she
has sufficient confidence in her figure to finish the Dance
of the Seven Veils totally naked.
This DVD is a release
of a German 1990 staging that has been available for some years
on VHS. Among Salome fans, even to this day, it is likely
to be the favourite performance on film. The main competition
comes from two Covent Garden offerings. Sir Peter Hall’s production,
which dates from the mid-eighties, featured his former wife
Maria Ewing who is as sexy a Salome as your ever likely to see,
and, like Malfitano, ends the dance in the nude. The other is
a Decca DVD release of the later re-staging of 1997 conducted
by Christoph von Dohnányi that also stars Malfitano who by this
time is getting on for fifty.
Many have been excited
by Ewing’s Salome while others found she fell short vocally,
with a propensity to growl in the low register and a tendency
to some waywardness the higher she went. Malfitano’s may not
have been the greatest voice to have sung Salome - in available
recording terms that accolade must go to the recently late-lamented
Birgit Nilsson - but she is never found wanting vocally.
This leaves the
choice between the two Malfitano performances. From speaking
to people who know both productions and having read several
comparative criticisms, this earlier one under review seems
to be the clear favourite. I beg to differ on two grounds.
First, the performances
in 1997 of Malfitano and Bryn Terfel (as Jokanaan) is I think
superior. The big scene between them is far more effective than
that between Malfitano and Simon Estes; and on the whole I prefer
the rest of the cast. Second, I consider conductor Christoph
von Dohnányi significantly more sympathetic to Strauss’s great
score and to Oscar Wilde’s drama than the late Giuseppe Sinopoli.
Seven years on from
the German production, Malfitano was approaching fifty, yet
she injects into her Covent Garden performance a greater sense
of child-like awe in her obsession with John the Baptist (Jokanaan).
She also brings a convincing sense of pique when she does not
seem to be getting her way in the form of teenage tantrum-throwing.
This aspect of her performance is manifest in her scene with
Terfel which conveys an element of physical eroticism in a way
that is absent in her scene with Estes where the two protagonists
play with a distance between them, presumably intended to suggest
the object of Salome’s fixation as something more illusory and
Terfel is as good
as you could get in his role, without wishing to be disrespectful
to Estes. Terfel has a range from lyricism to power, delivered
with an effortlessness suggesting, at the same time, a latent
energy that I find more dramatically effective than Estes’ full
In addition to Terfel,
Kenneth Riegel’s Herod and Anja Silja’s Herodias are more alive.
Riegel plays on Herod’s paranoia almost to a fault but the scene
after the dance where he tries hysterically to deter Salome
from wanting the head of Jokanaan really works well. Silja imparts
a command and chill to Herodias that for me is more in keeping
with the part than in Leonie Rysanek’s passive, albeit vocally
are generally very fine. The weakest link over the two is Sinopoli’s
conducting, which is my second main point.
His approach - and
the director, Peter Weigl may have had a hand in this - is driving,
frenetic and often overly loud thus losing out on many of the
dramatic subtleties of the score. Sinopoli fails to build steadily
towards Strauss’s many secondary climaxes ending in musical
paragraphs which are often followed by short periods of repose
- essential to the musical and dramatic narrative. Sinopoli’s
poor judgement of pacing manifests itself in different ways
to the overall detriment of the drama. He does get the orchestra
to play with some admirable textural clarity but it is not enough
to compensate. I am aware that some people do like their Salome
and Elektra rendered like some of Ken Russell’s movies:
being repeatedly hit with a sledgehammer, but I am certainly
not among them.
with the composer’s many recordings of his own music from the
1920s onwards is bound to conclude that Strauss would never
have conducted Salome like this. A great conductor in
his own right, Strauss tended to take his music at a good pace
but when it came to calm or more lyrical moments, however short,
he relaxed and let the music breathe, often with exquisite turns
of phrase without ever letting things drag.
Here are two examples
of the negative effects of Sinopoli’s conducting: first, the
Dance of the Seven Veils. Strauss wrote this out of context
after he had finished the rest of the piece and seems have seduced
himself into writing a mini tone poem, playing around with most
of the leitmotifs so far introduced. It has generally been thought
of as unbalancing the otherwise taut structure of the opera
because of its relative length and it has the potential to undermine
the dramatic thrust so far achieved: all the more reason to
keep the music moving. Not Sinopoli. He conducts it slowly as
if to turn a dance into a rhythmically rambling striptease,
an approach accentuated by his otherwise driving tempi and therefore
further destabilising the overall structure. Although there
may be good grounds to draw out the striptease element, especially
in Malfitano’s performance, there are other considerations to
take into account. There is available to posterity a stand-alone
recording of the Dance made by the composer, and from
that we can hear that Strauss viewed the episode as a musical
dance that should be kept moving. His performance is significantly
faster than that of Sinopoli.
A second example
is at the close of the opera. At the end of Salome’s great soliloquy
over the severed head of Jokanaan, the princess has lulled herself
into an illusory sense of warm fulfilment over her being able,
at last, to kiss the prophet’s lips. As she finishes, the music
soars triumphantly with one of her main motifs then crunches
onto what must be one of the most dramatically telling discords
in the history of music. At a stroke the music wrenches us from
reverie to the horror of the reality of the situation and Herod
shouts an order for Salome’s summary execution on the spot.
The meaning is in the music and most conductors I have heard
are able to make the most of it. Dohnányi both soars and breathes.
Not Sinopoli. He skids through this passage as if he didn’t
know the discord was there.
has carried her great scene with enormous effort and power and
even Sinopoli’s insensitive conducting cannot destroy that.
Also, it is testimony to the greatness of Strauss’s score that
it survives the battering it gets here.
As for the sets,
I do prefer those in the Sinopoli version which have a more
chunky middle Eastern look to them than in Dohnányi’s production
which are cold, gloomy and anonymous. Salome is dressed in a
long black and white gown taken from Aubrey Beardsley’s famous
illustrations that were made for the first English publication
in 1894 of Oscar Wilde’s play - incorrectly described as a “poem”
in the DVD credits. Alluding to Beardsley is not an original
idea but it is striking.
When Jokanaan is
brought up from his cistern to meet Salome, he emerges, bizarrely,
high up some steps, well above Salome. Simon Estes is thus able
to place his head in front of the image of the moon - a symbol
of Salome’s virginity - as if it were a halo. He spends a lot
of his time with arms outstretched in a crucifixion position
and Salome gawps at him in wide-eyed awe. It is all visually
striking but lacks the intimacy of the Malfitano/Terfel partnership.
groupies will not need to agonise over which version to get
because they will need both. If it has to be one, then I confirm
my thumbs go up to the later Covent Garden version and I have
given my reasons. Malfitano may not be in quite the same voice
and she doesn’t strip down to the nude - if that’s a consideration
- but her portrayal adds more breadth to the character. When
it comes to her final scene it is not just her acting and singing
of the moment that lends such power, but a memory of her earlier
scene with Terfel where she has established herself more convincingly
as a victim of her own innocence and immaturity despite her
sexual posturing. Thus her pathological behaviour at the end
which seems to combine a form of both sexual and blood lust,
is in fact a tragedy. We really can feel compassion for a girl
who is so innocent and bewildered that she cannot tell the difference
between love and the satisfaction gained from kissing lips on
a bleeding head. And she is killed for it.
This is very Oscar
Wilde. Salome has had the object of her desire killed. Herod
has her, the object of his desire, killed. It recalls the famous
ending to the writer’s great The Ballad of Reading Goal:
“And all men kill the thing they love”.
Wilde’s play - which
he wrote in French - has never really caught on in the theatre,
but Strauss’s genius has immortalised it by turning in into
one of the most powerful and disturbing pieces of musical theatre
ever conceived; and it is done in well under two hours. Both
these Malfitano versions convey the opera’s greatness, but with
the magnificent support of Bryn Terfel and Christoph von Dohnányi,
it is Decca’s DVD that contains the finest performance that
I have ever seen.
see also Review
by Tony Haywood
potential purchasers need to be aware of one major technical
glitch. Just before the build up to Salomes 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.