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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome (1905)
Libretto from the play by Oscar Wilde (1892)
Catherine Malfitano (sop) - Salome
Simon Estes (bass-bar) - Jokanaan
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]

 

Salome is 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.

Catherine Malfitano 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 untouchable.

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 frontal blasting.

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 powerful, portrayal.

Both productions 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.

Anyone familiar 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.

Fortunately, Malfitano 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.

Catherine Malfitano 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.

John Leeman

see also Review by Tony Haywood

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Footnote: 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.

 

 



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