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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome, musical drama in one act
Asmik Grigorian (Salome), John Daszak (Herod), Anna Maria Chiuri (Herodias), Gábor Bretz (Jokanaan), Julian Prégardien (Narraboth), Wiener Philharmoniker / Franz Welser-Möst, Romeo Castellucci (stage director, set, costume and lighting designer), Henning Kasten (video director)
rec. 24, 26 & 28 August 2018, Felsenreitschule, Salzburg Festival, Austria
Sound: BD, PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1
Picture: NTSC, 16:9
Subtitles in German (original language), English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Japanese
Booklet: English, German, French
UNITEL EDITIONS 801704 Blu-Ray [112 mins]

The very first performances of Richard Strauss’s Salome caused a sensation – because of the subject and its brilliant realisation. Over a hundred years later, it has become sensational once again – because of the singer in the title role. Strauss’s Salome has become “Grigorian’s Salome”. For this production, she was named the Best Female Singer at the 2019 International Opera Awards. Already the Young Singer of the Year in 2016, she is the first to have won in both categories. This is Asmik Grigorian’s debut in the role, yet she seems to have been born to sing it. She is the daughter of Armenian tenor Gegham Grigoryan and the Lithuanian soprano Irena Milkevičiūtė. She is from Lithuania, but is now a citizen of the (operatic) world, for the world’s press was reaching for its favourite superlatives over her Salzburg performance. For once such claims as “musically epoch-making” and “a Salome to end all Salomes” are not all hyperbole, at least with regard to the title role.

Grigorian looks more like a teenage girl than many who have sung the role, and has a pure clear sound with little vibrato that never hardens, even in the extremes of this part. Thus she can do petulance without shrieking, since Strauss has written it into the vocal line and there is no need to add some ‘vocal acting’. In the excitement of the final scene, she can still be heard though the orchestral tumult. Her acting, even with the choreographed stylised gestures, persuades us that this is a dangerous person to get involved with. Just as Narraboth and Herod watch her compulsively, so do we, becoming complicit in our fascination with this beautiful, gruesome creature.

The supporting cast is a good one. Gábor Bretz’s Jokanaan has sufficient nobility and strength of tone (even below ground in his cistern). John Daszak is an effective Herod, if taxed more than some in his upper range. But then this makes him more of a weaselly Tetrarch, especially desperate when he learns what exactly Salome wants brought to her on a silver charger. His consort Herodias is Anna Maria Chiuri, who makes the most of her ungracious part, resentful at being exposed by John the Baptist and coarsely triumphant at her daughter’s vicious ingenuity. Julian Prégardien’s Narraboth launches the opera exquisitely with a sweetly ardent “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht” (‘How lovely Princess Salome looks tonight’) unaware how dangerous his obsession is.

The Felsenreitschule staging is a minimalist one, with a few accoutrements (saddles, harnesses – and one horse) recalling the riding school days of the venue. Herod and his court wear dark outdoor clothes, and the lower half of their faces are painted blood-red. The booklet has a little apologia from Der Spiegel’s review of production “which combines social criticism and religious history with extremely relevant images, which at first glance seem puzzling, but then become clearer…” Although the images are often inventive and striking, bafflement still sometimes outweighs clarity for me after two viewings, at least at some of the directorial decisions. Salome is immobile for her dance, and we do not get the head of Jokanaan, but the rest of his naked headless body, sitting in a dining chair. We do get the horse’s severed head lying on the floor – perhaps a reference to The Godfather, emphasising Herod’s palace as a place of casual violence? Of course Salome still has to sing of having kissed Jokanaan’s mouth, even though she has not.

Franz Welser-Möst draws some outstanding playing from the Vienna Philharmonic. They sound sumptuous at climaxes, with plenty of the fine detail of this often filigree score brought out. The picture and surround sound on this Blu-ray are very good, too. In fact if you decide after a few viewings (or just one) to switch off your screen, you have a fine audio recording here, and of a tremendous performance. Among many good filmed Salomes I have mostly favoured an earlier Salzburg version directed by Luc Bondy, in its Covent Garden incarnation, with Catherine Malfitano and Bryn Terfel as Salome and Jokanaan, conducted by Dohnanyi. That is well worth seeing and hearing still, but this new one is also an essential recommendation, for the casting, playing and conducting, but above all for its new benchmark in the performance of the title role. And repeated viewings might yet illuminate the parallel tale being told by Castellucci’s production.
Roy Westbrook
See also Len Mullenger's articles:
What is the meaning behind the Castellucci production of Salome?
Salome - that shocking opera

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