Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome (1909)
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
Region: worldwide
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Korean
Menu language: English
rec. live, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2011
ARTHAUS MUSIK BLU-RAY 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 don't help.
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 final production doesn’t build on these moments of great music and – potentially – great theatre.
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.

Dan Morgan
Some fine singing; pity the production is so perverse.