Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Herod – Kim Begley (tenor)
Herodias – Doris Soffel (mezzo)
Jokanaan – Alan Held (bass-baritone)
Salome – Angela Denoke (soprano)
Narraboth – Marcel Reijans (tenor)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Stefan Soltesz
Stage director: Nikolaus Lehnhoff
Stage design: Hans-Martin Scholder
Video director: Thomas Grimm
Picture: 16:9/1080i Full HD
Sound: PCM stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.0
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese,
Menu language: English
rec. live, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2011
108 037 [112:00]
In my review
of the 2010 Salzburg Elektra
I remarked that the growing list of Strauss operas on Blu-ray
was a cause for celebration, especially when they sport the
kind of singers and ensembles you’d pay exorbitant sums to hear
in the flesh. Blu-ray – with its fine pictures and superior
sound – is the next best thing to being there, but it’s also
a very unforgiving medium that highlights visual and sonic shortcomings.
There were no major issues with that Elektra which,
like this Salome, gets an angular, minimalist staging
and a mish-mash of dress codes. Curiously, both productions
– directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff – banish the orchestra and audience.
This can – and often does – have a strangely alienating effect
when viewed on video.
That said, there’s something so defiantly ‘other’ about the
events of both operas that such an approach can actually intensify
the emotional impact of what we see and hear. The unremitting
horror to which Elektra is an unwilling spectator and the chilling
depravity that attends Herod’s court aren’t really that different.
One looks to these supremely dramatic scores – now ugly, now
ravishing – and to robust, fearless singers to make these operas
deliver their dark magic. Daniele Gatti and the Wiener Philharmoniker
are superb in Elektra, big, bold and all-embracing,
and the principals are very strong indeed.
In this Salome the boyish Angela Denoke takes the name
part, as she did in David McVicar’s Royal Opera production in
2010; it's a strangely androgynous look, quite at odds with
her role as a sulky temptress. No qualms about the palace guards
in their ill-fitting uniforms – vaguely suggestive of a Middle
Eastern dictatorship, perhaps – but why is Herodias’s page dressed
like a bell-hop from a B movie? And given the potent sexual
imagery associated with his hair, rendering Jokanaan bald but
for a strange topknot seems rather perverse.
These are the first of many visual/dramatic mismatches, the
like of which are all too familiar in the opera house these
days. Fortunately Denoke has the range and control necessary
for her taxing role. As for Marcel Reijans’ Narraboth – a gormless
but impassioned voyeur and victim – it's also well sung. The
American bass-baritone Alan Held cuts an anguished figure as
the Baptist; his is a strong, steady voice dramatically undermined
by all that unnecessary gurning. One might also be tempted to
wonder why, when Salome fixates on his eyes, he keeps them tight
shut most of the time. Small points, perhaps, but when opera
depends so much on a willing suspension of disbelief such oddities
Granted, both Elektra and Salome are very
static operas, and devising new and innovative routines for
the singers must be a trial indeed. The camera roams restlessly
from left to right and back again, emphasising the claustrophobia
of the court and underlining the dances of love, ecstasy and
death that alternately attract and repel the protagonists. In
that sense the striking triangular backdrop with its angled
walkway and changing colours is an apt visual correlative for
the central triangle of Salome, Herod and Jokanaan. As for the
polished obsidian floor it’s both a mirror and a void; as with
Wilde’s Dorian Gray it reflects moral and sexual corruption,
while also functioning as an abyss over which Salome skates
and skitters towards derangement and death.
The all-too-intrusive close-ups of Denoke – vocally superb throughout
– reveal too much eye movement, while Narraboth is condemned
to pacing the stage and gnawing at his knuckles. Try as I might,
I just could not settle on anyone or anything; as soon as I
managed to do so it was whisked out of shot. It's all very 'bitty'
and unsettling, not to say mildly irritating. Otherwise the
picture is good and colours are reasonably vivid; the sound
– in stereo at least – is merely adequate, and certainly not
as dynamic or as immersive as that provided for Elektra.
Doris Soffel makes a splendidly sour Herodias, her voice and
mien as imperious as one could hope for. Kim Begley’s fawning,
rather pathetic Herod comes across as an overweight office worker
on a lecherous night out. Herod’s isn’t a particularly demanding
part – it's all too easy to overplay as well – but vocally Begley
is just too small and wont to whine. And while his acting is
so grotesque it’s laughable there are some illuminating touches.
For instance, when faced with Salome’s gruesome final demand
he catches sight of himself in the silver charger – his Dorian
Gray moment – and is pole-axed by what he sees there.
What about that dance? Always a problem to bring off
successfully, Lehnhoff gets Denoke to lie, squirm and pirouette
for her drooling dad; it really is a most peculiar routine,
quite devoid of sexual charge. And then there's the near-naked,
muscle-bound gaoler/executioner Naaman, played by one Patrick
Büttner; his skimpy S&M gear and awkward gait – the latter
to stop him from popping his pouch, perhaps – is yet another
example of the rank silliness that blights this production.
In the pit Stefan Soltesz delivers a workmanlike reading of
the score, and although the sound is somewhat veiled it’s still
reasonably detailed. What I miss most is the sheer amplitude
of Strauss’s music, especially at nodal points such as the Dance
of the Seven Veils. There just isn’t that sense of a wick being
turned up, the flame growing fierce as the drama peaks and flares.
Granted, the flesh does creep when the demented Denoke cuddles
the Baptist’s bloody head. Her extraordinary, bleached tone
is simply hair-raising. What a shame the production doesn’t
build on these moments of great music and – potentially – great
Oh dear, not a pleasant experience – and all for the wrong reasons.
At least an audience reaction could bring a degree of catharsis,
but instead the visuals are snatched away and replaced with
the closing credits. So very dispiriting, especially when Denoke
and Held deliver vocally. I can only speculate as to what the
good burghers of Baden-Baden made of this mess; perhaps it was
just as well they were kept out of the picture after all.
Some fine singing; pity the production is so perverse.