Vienna State Opera 2017-18 Review – Salome: Vocal Brilliance Throughout, If Not a Complete Package

(Credit: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)

Boleslaw Barlog and Jürgen Rose’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” was first performed in 1972, under the direction of Karl Böhm, with Leonie Rysanek in the title role. It has now notched-up well over 200 performances and is still going strong. After 45 years you would be forgiven for thinking that it may have lost some of its sheen, that its initial energy and life might have somewhat dissipated and that it may now be looking a little dated (Even our imaginary views of the past date can appear hackneyed). You would, however, be wrong. The production still has the power, vibrancy, and immediacy to captivate and enthrall, such is the strength of its design. Moreover, it is a production that will especially appeal to audiences who prefer a traditional presentation, who have little interest in trying to interpret obscure references or discern the underlying meaning of a director’s concept, or who become irritated by gimmicky productions.

The Set

The set, built on two levels, is simple and effective. On the left side is a heavy stone raised platform with stairs and a door to the rest of the palace. It is through this door that members of the royal household enter and exit. Below is a courtyard, surrounded by fortified walls, with an entrance at the back through which the guards and others enter. A tree rises above in the background. The cistern, in which Jochanaan is imprisoned, is placed at the front of the stage. Although the initial and dominating impression is that of a building from pre-Christian Judea, satisfying those hankering after a “realistic” presentation, it is in fact overlayed with an art nouveau veneer. The entrance to the palace is reminiscent of Vienna’s Secession building completed in 1898. The decorative designs, in gold, on the surfaces are typical of the style, and the tree overlooking the battlements is ornate, balanced, and styled in the same fashion. This was reinforced by the costumes which, although ostensibly from the pre-Christian period, were also decorated with designs typical of the art nouveau period. Herodias’ costume, for example, was very colorful and regal, but with art nouveau flourishes, replete with ostrich feathers in her hair. Not only did all this help to produce an exquisitely beautiful and delicate staging, but it also subtly and successfully evoked the decadence and sultry atmosphere at the heart of Herod’s court. This was further amplified by having the set bathed in dark blue and gold light, which also added a claustrophobic and erotic element to the scene.

However, the erotic undercurrents and claustrophobia underlying the work were not really explored beyond this. In fact, if anything they were underplayed. Salome’s fixation on the “unobtainable” man was only lightly touched upon, her dance for Herod was lackluster and her necrophiliac fawning over Jochanaan’s severed head was kept within the bounds of good taste. Although the psychologically disturbed nature of the characters was, to varying degrees, highlighted, it was not made the focus of the production and tackled only in a superficial albeit effective manner. Therefore, the numerous rich opportunities that exist within “Salome” to explore the deeper forces that motivate the characters remained largely undeveloped.

Forever Young

On the musical side, there was a lot to admire, not least the playing of the Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper under the direction of Simone Young. It has been said by many commentators that “Salome” is, in fact, a tone poem for orchestra and voice, and from this performance, it was clear as to why such a conclusion could be reached. There were times when it was possible to close your eyes and let the music and voices wash over you, such was their power to evoke the onstage drama: Young’s reading was simply thrilling. She produced a perfectly balanced rendition, in which even the smallest musical detail was drawn from the score and delivered with great beauty, giving the music a depth and subtlety that carried the drama forward. Tempi, dynamics, and rhythms were always tightly under control and enabled the orchestra to produce a nuanced and expressive sound. Nor did Young stint from allowing the orchestra to create the characteristic soaring Straussian crescendos, which filled the theater with a rich, glorious sound that was truly nerve-tingling. If there was one very minor criticism, it is that she occasionally allowed the singers to be overwhelmed by the orchestra. A small price to pay for such a satisfying experience.

Good Vocally, But…

In the title role was the German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, who produced an excellent singing performance. She has a voice that appears perfectly suited to the role and dealt with the vocal demands without any noticeable strain, transitioning seamlessly between registers, and securely delivering the long flowing lines with beauty and strength. Her skillful phrasing added a real gloss to her performance. However, for most of the performance, she did seem to be a little self-conscious and thus did not attack the lines with the necessary abandonment needed to propel her to the highest level. All this changed, however, when in the final scene, after securing the head of Jockanaan from Herod, she launches into “Es ist ein kein Laut zu vernehmen,” a long and demanding ending to the opera, where she finally lets loose, abandoning the restraint she had shown so far, and produced a fulfilling and emotionally devastating ending. However, if

However, if Barkim’s portrayal of the depraved adolescent was excellent from a singing standpoint, the same cannot be said of her ability to characterize Salome through her acting, which was distant and cold throughout. In the third scene, Salome wants to touch “his white body,” which she sings looking distractedly towards the audience, at a long distance from Jockanaan, and displaying no signs of psychological instability. Of course, this could have been a directorial decision: either way it did not convince. Rightly or wrongly, “Salome” is known for “The Dance of the Seven Veils’, and it normally precipitates many column inches in reviews. However, all that can be said about Barkmin’s performance is that dancing is probably not her forte: this was as about as uninspiring as it could be, the choreography lacking shape or direction, and it was surely not helped by the veils, which were unbelievably insipid.

The Complete Package

Meanwhile, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, as Herod, made it clear from the outset that he had unraveled a long time since. He put in an absolutely first-class performance as the Tetrarch. His jerky mannerism and facial expressions were all perfectly placed, his erratic behavior gloriously bizarre. He even managed to be fascinated and aroused by Salome’s dance. Here was a man who had definitely fallen into the abyss. Moreover, his acting was matched by his singing. Ablinger-Sperrhacke possesses a strong and flexible tenor with a pleasant tone, which he colored subtly to successfully underline his irrational behavior.

His wife, Herodias, played by Iris Vermillion, also put in a fine portrayal of someone unhinged by the trappings of wealth and unbridled power. Often with a glass in her hand, she played the part as if she was in a state of semi-drunkenness. Like Ablinger-Sperrhacke, her behavior veered between the absurd and the vicious. Her voice has a beautiful richness with a flexibility she used to successfully characterize Herodias’ madness. They did, indeed, make a wonderful pair, complementing each other’s erratic behavior perfectly. The downside, of course, was that it highlighted Barkmin’s inability to fully characterize Salome’s mental deterioration.

Making his role debut at the Wiener Staatsoper, Željko Lučić presented a powerful and authoritative Jockanaan. Lučić is a big man, who dressed in a black gown with dank, black long hair and an unkempt beard looked, sounded and acted the part. His voice has a dark timbre and is strong and secure across the range, which was perfectly suited to his role as the holy man who inspires fear, hatred and obsessive lust in Herod, Herodias, and Salome respectively. Singing part of the time from inside the cistern (and below the stage) his voiced boomed out clearly, haranguing the sinners above in what was a convincing performance.

As Narraboth, the tenor Carlos Osuna, sang and acted the part to an acceptable standard. His voice has a pleasant tone which he used well as the Captain of the Guard. Like Salome, Herod and almost everyone else he is not exactly stable and kills himself after becoming disgusted by Salome’s behavior.

All the minor parts were sung and acted well, however, a special mention must be given to Ulrike Helzel as the Page. She made a very encouraging and pleasing performance. Although only a relatively minor role she sang the part well, displaying strength and subtlety in equal measure, and displayed a good ability in characterizing her voice, through intelligent phrasing. Moreover, her acting also impressed.

Overall, this was a strong production on the musical side and pleasing on the eye, and although it did not dig too deeply below the surface of the work it was effective in conveying the drama in a sharp and convincing manner.

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