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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome, Op. 54 (1905)
Asmik Grigorian (Salome), John Daszak (Herod), Anna Maria Chiuri (Herodias), Gábor Bretz (Jokanaan), Julian Prégardien (Narraboth), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
Romeo Castellucci (stage director, set, costume and lighting designer), Henning Kasten (video director)
rec. 24, 26 & 28 August 2018, Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, Austria
Sung in German with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Japanese
UNITEL EDITIONS DVD 801608 [111 mins]

Consider, if you will, this scene from Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio, Romeo’s friend, has fought a duel with Tybalt, and is dying. Romeo believes that the wound is not serious. A scratch, replies Mercutio: ‘… not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.’ Now let us imagine that the producer, wishing to stage the play in a way that asks questions of the audience rather than answering them, decides to dispense with the duel altogether. In this case, Mercutio doesn’t die, leaving no reason for Romeo to avenge his death by, in turn, killing Tybalt. How can the producer square his vision with Shakespeare’s text?

In Richard Strauss’s Salome, a near word-for-word setting of the German translation of a play by Oscar Wilde, itself loosely based on a New Testament story, the young princess Salome develops a lustful desire for John the Baptist. She extracts a promise from her father, Herod, that if she dances for him, he will give her anything she asks for. She demands the Baptist’s head. In the closing scene of the opera, Salome ecstatically speaks to and kisses the severed head of John the Baptist. Among the many perplexing features of this staging by Romeo Castellucci is the fact that there is no dance and no head. Truly, Castellucci seems to want to ask questions of his audience without answering them.

By chance, this DVD was waiting for me when I returned home after a few days in Aix-en Provence, where I saw Puccini’s Tosca in a production by Christophe Honoré. His vision of the work required not one, but two Toscas, the first in retirement, played by the 70-year-old Catherine Malfitano; and the second, at the outset of her career, a pupil of the retired diva, marvellously sung and played by Angel Blue. The first act is presented as a rehearsal at the diva’s home. The staging of the second act is complex and I fear I never understood it, nor the reasoning behind it. The third act has the orchestra and conductor on stage and the cast in concert dress. It is the older, non-singing Tosca, depressed and in crisis because her career is over, who commits suicide at the end, slashing her wrists. Her death is confirmed by a character dressed in a French fireman’s uniform, as if summoned from the theatre corridors.

We know that opera houses throughout the world function on repeated performances of a handful – albeit a mighty handful – of works. I imagine that when the call comes to stage Tosca or Salome any producer is going to look for new ways of doing things, and that is as it should be. But opera is theatre, and generally tells a story, even if we can’t always hear the words. Good costume design allows the audience to identify the characters. In Aix, had you not already known the story, you would have had no idea at all what was going on. I’d hate to be seen as reactionary, but this can’t be right.

In my opinion, the Aix production of Tosca amounted to a near-sabotage of Puccini’s masterpiece. This Salome, on the other hand, in spite of a large number of perverse and apparently counter-productive aspects of the staging, is powerful and compelling. Let’s see why.

The set is grey, neutral and inert. Salome’s crown, attached to a veil, lies on the ground. Narraboth, the Captain of the detail guarding the prisoner, John the Baptist, enters with Herodias’s Page. Both are in modern western dress: long coats, collar and tie, homburg hats, strange in the case of the page, a mezzo-soprano frequently played as being in love with Narraboth. The bottom half of each of their faces is painted red. They walk, with stylised gestures, to the middle of the stage, where Narraboth wraps Salome’s veil around his shoe before singing the first line of the opera, in praise of the young princess’s beauty. Soldiers appear, similarly dressed and painted, and carrying riding paraphernalia which they install against the back wall. Then enter some cleaners, also with half-painted faces, but dressed as cleaners, at least. They set about mopping the floor, before hauling something long, black and disgusting from the cistern in which the Baptist is held. Salome, when she appears, is dressed in pure, virginal white, except that the back of her shift is stained with what one imagines to be menstrual blood and of which she seems to be unaware. She hears the voice of the prophet and demands to see him, though Narraboth informs her that Herod has forbidden it. She then uses her feminine charms on Narraboth, but her movements, coquettish certainly, are again stylised and strangely gauche, perhaps to show that this teenager lacks, as yet, experience in this kind of thing. Narraboth relents, and as she waits for John the Baptist to rise from his cell, she dons her veil and crown like any young girl at her first communion. The Baptist is jet-black, his head festooned with American-Indian feathers. When Salome finally gets to approach him and to tell him how beautiful he is and how much she desires him he has acquired her veil and crown – we don’t see quite how – and is holding them in his hand. He has only revulsion for her, but his movements suggest that even he is tempted. Narraboth, who is in love with Salome, kills himself in despair at this spectacle, though the filming doesn’t allow us to see this. By now, Salome is down on all fours with a saddle on her back, an unmistakeable sexual invitation as clumsy as before. There is nothing clumsy about what she does when the Baptist returns to his cistern however. There may be no Dance of the Seven Veils in this production, but the choreography here is as erotic as anything I have ever seen on the operatic stage. This vision is complemented by the appearance of a black stallion at the mouth of the cistern.

The scene changes to Herod’s banquet, represented by a few standard lamps, a band and a camera on a tripod. Herodias’s face is painted green rather than red. Also present is a mini-Salome, perhaps ten years old: stop looking at her, you’re always looking at her, spits Herodias. This child-Salome slips out by the door when the older version reappears. Then follow a series of quite extraordinary stage images. As the Jews try to convince Herod to deliver the Baptist to them, two boxers and their referee are photographed towards the back of the stage. The hosing down of the Baptist at least explains that he who is meant to be white as ivory was only black because he was covered in filth. But are they not two American policemen doing the hosing? When John returns to the cistern Herodias throws her outrageous headgear and jewellery down after him. On to Salome’s dance which is, as we have seen, no dance at all. Instead she is mounted on a plinth, bound and kneeling, semi-naked, in the foetal position whilst what appears to be a giant rock is slowly lowered and seems to crush her. Reappearing behind a shield of helpers, like the lady who has not been sawn in half, she now demands the Baptist’s head as her prize. She needs time and determination to break Herod’s resolve, much of which she spends in a pool of milk. Human bodies are dragged on in semi-transparent bags. The stallion’s head is produced, perhaps as a sop: you’re not having the prophet but you can have this. And when Herod finally gives in, it is not the Baptist’s head that is given, but the rest of him, naked. Everything but the head.

My colleague Roy Westbrook has praised the musical aspects of this performance, allowing me to concentrate on the staging. I agree with everything he says, though I don’t share his slight reservations about the John Daszak’s Herod. Musically, this is as good as it gets, and now stands alongside my favourite audio-only recording, on RCA, superbly conducted by Erich Leinsdorf and with Montserrat Caballé, of all people, an astonishing Salome. This is live, and the Salzburg cast are very fine actors, seemingly convinced by and committed to Castellucci’s vision of the work. I also pay tribute to the sumptuous playing of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the perfect pacing of the work by conductor Franz Welser-Möst, who was subject to much adverse criticism during his tenure in London. And then there is Asmik Grigorian. Hers is surely a Salome that will not be forgotten. Describing in detail her assumption of the role would take several pages. Let me simply draw attention to her as a petulant teenager, stubbornly insisting that she wants the Baptist’s head and nothing else will do. In the final scene, Salome seems to accept that having finally kissed John the Baptist she is now, in some way, complete. She is both blissfully happy and deeply moved, and knows that she will now die. Grigorian communicates all this through facial expressions whilst singing in a pit with only her head and shoulders visible to the audience. And what singing! Vocally she is beyond praise.

Romeo Castellucci presents his view of Salome by avoiding the explicit, preferring signs that each of us may interpret as we wish and as far as we are able. Does the presence of Salome as a child and the older Salome’s bloodstained costume suggest sexual abuse on the part of Herod? I’m pretty sure it does, for there are other clues too. As for the rest, one can only wonder and ponder. Why is the Baptist’s head not produced at the end, but the rest of him instead? What is the significance of the horse and riding equipment? Surely it can’t simply be a reference to the fact that the theatre in Salzburg was originally a riding school? (If the production transfers one day to Covent Garden, will sacks of potatoes and carrots be produced?) Whose bodies are in those bags, and what on earth are the boxers doing there? Why are so many of Herod’s movements and gestures shadowed by figures standing behind him? This could all lead to frustration and even derision, and for some operagoers it may indeed do so. To my surprise, following some initial scepticism, I find it all extraordinarily compelling. Unlike the Aix Tosca, these are strong and striking ideas with huge visual and theatrical impact. And let us not forget that Strauss himself sets us an enormous conundrum. How did he relate to his heroine? She is plainly a depraved, disgusting monster, yet he gives her some of the most ravishingly beautiful music that any operatic soprano will ever sing. What would he have thought Grigorian’s assumption of the role? We can only speculate on that, but the curtain calls at Salzburg are revealing. The audience reserves the loudest and longest cheer for her. So far so conventional, though it does seem sincere. But when the production team appears on stage – also warmly received – Castellucci kneels before her, delighted, deeply grateful, perhaps even in awe of her magisterial and miraculous performance.

William Hedley

Previous review (Blu-ray): Roy Westbrook

Len Mullenger’s interpretation of the staging

Salome - That shocking opera

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