Opéra de Paris 2024 Review: Salome

By João Marcos Copertino
(Photo: Charles Duprat / Opéra National de Paris)

Whether you liked it or not, Lydia Steier’s “Salome” was the event of last season. Bleeding bodies, shooting guns, nudity, and rape; it was an R-rated “Salome.” Its provocations echoed both Wilde’s spirit and current discussions of gender, capitalism, and harassment. In this revival, the story is a bit different. The true star is Lise Davidsen. You see her face everywhere: from the cover of the “Cadences” magazine—distributed in front of every single major artistic venue of the city—to one of the most laudatory reviews ever published at the New York Times. With a superlative voice comes superlative reactions.

Davidsen’s artistic trajectory, however, was not naturally leaning towards Salome. Despite her superb instrument and strong kinship to Strauss’s music, even her most fanatic admirer would acknowledge that the Norwegian soprano brought  to the stage a certain  sweetness—and even sometimes earnestness—that is foreign to  the princess of Judea’s luxuriant desire. Steier’s production only increased the dramatical challenges for Davidsen: overtly sexual, violent, and borderline unlikeable, Salome is a step over playing Elizabeths, Elzas, Ariadnes, and Chrysothemises. The effect of the timing is particularly complex: this “Salome” revival is evidently a major success with the house audience—rarely in Paris has a singer received a standing ovation at her first curtain call—, but this triumph is more Davidsen’s as a star than “Salome’s” as an opera. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Although my general impressions of Steier’s staging are still pretty similar to what they were last year, I might be better able to phrase them now. Steier wisely explored something that everyone who had intercourse knows: sex is often dirty. Forget the Platonic idealizations of love and sex that have been preached to you in Meg Ryan’s films: there is a lewd element to desire that cannot be obliterated, especially when we are dealing with Oscar Wilde. The beauty of Wilde, however, lies precisely in conjugating this lewdness with an aestheticism therefore, the sexual desire, however dirty as it may be, cannot be dissociated from his aesthetical goals. In fact, the desire itself might demoralize aesthetics—at least in the case of “Salome.”

Steier combines this lewdness with a style that, redolent of Bob Mackie and 1980s-era Cher, is, at its best, itself a performance of desire and—why not—queerness. In that regard, I am extremely shocked—but supremely compelled—by this “Salome.” It is enough to make the most jaded of critics blush to see Davidsen pretending to masturbate on stage, and it is almost unbearable to see the dance of the seven veils transformed into a big gang bang that some would call a scene of rape. However, they all serve to reveal a particularly shocking aspect of the opera: its lewd sexuality. Usually that is all is softened, if not sublimated, by glossy scenarios and realistic Jerusalem temples.

The problem with Steier’s staging comes when, after uncovering this important dimension of desire in Wilde, it then seems to moralize it. At these moments, it seems to seek a revolution that would move toward purity—deferring the sexual act either to a sublime post-mortem imagination (Salome’s delirium) or for a tomorrow that might never arrive. Still, the simple fact of uncovering “Salome’s” sexual tensions, even if solely for a “shock theater” experience is, to my mind, a big theatrical achievement.

Mark Wigglesworth seemed engaged in also bringing out this musical lewdness in the score of the opera. His reading explores the rhythmical impressions, the cacophony of sounds and textures—precisely the restlessness that lies in the pit. Although I fear the orchestra was a bit too loud sometimes—and the singers maybe not as loud as they should have been—the result was impressive at some moments. Few times has the double bass solo just before “Es ist kein Laut” been so disquieting; Daniel Marrilier’s playing evoked the squeak of a sticky door—an opaque and hurtful sound. The orchestral mass in the final moments of the opera was mystic and magical. In Wigglesworth’s hands, the orchestra was more about texture than melody, but what textures!

But to write about the orchestra might defer the more essential question: the main question was first and foremost Davidsen.

The soprano brought to the role a certain kind of naïveté and adolescent impulsiveness that had some charms. Her lighting of cigarettes evoked that “bad teenager girl who listened to Avril Lavigne” and wanted to disappoint her parents. Towards the end of the opera, the rendering of such a personality truly works, especially when Salome is lifted toward the proscenium with Jochanaan in an ecstasy of romantic lust directed toward the object of her unrequited love. Perhaps the only possible love in Steier’s “Salome” is platonic, and perhaps only teenaged idealization and thwarted yearning can generate the intensity of longing animating the aestheticism of Wilde’s femme fatale.

Perhaps a victim of Bastille’s notorious acoustics, I was not as overwhelmed by Davidsen’s voice as I have been while seeing her elsewhere—especially seated in the higher floors of the Met. As we know, loud orchestras and flawed acoustics can be brutal even to what might be today’s loudest soprano’s voice. Nevertheless, Davidsen was trying new vocal things here. Instead of her gilded reverberation, she sang expressionistically, with a thicker vibrato than usual, and much attention to the text. Her middle and lower registers were not as bright—at least in terms of Davidsen’s ginormous voice—but they conveyed a certain aura of feigned meekness. It is a sound that exudes to something at once extremely adolescent and more or less disingenuous that made us understand both Salome’s seductive power and her dishonesty towards Narraboth. The effect is a little bit closer to a more conversational tone in most dialogues, making some moments of the opera truly extraordinary, especially when she comes to the front of the stage.

The final scene, is everything one could ask for. Steier’s romantic and platonic approach to the end, the disturbing orchestral mass, and Davidsen’s fatal ingenue Salome all melt into perfect harmony, creating one of those operatic moments that one wishes could last forever, even though that, like the evanescent moment in the Paterian aestheticism that shaped Wilde’s text, it is destined to vanish even as we apprehend it.

The rest of the cast, though extremely professional, seems to fall short in the face of Davidsen’s gigantic charisma. It is not their fault: to some, Davidsen is the sun.

Ekaterina Gubanova is an extraordinary Herodias, being able to make the role intentionally ridiculous and cruel but, perhaps, a drop less inhumane than her that of her husband. Her voice sounded seamless even as, handsy, she wandered the stage, touching the army’s crotch.

Gerhard Siegel’s Herodes is as despicable as he can be Familiar with the role of Herodes, the tenor’s voice was audible— just as it would be under a calmer orchestra. Moreover, he successfully stressed some syncopation between Herodes’s speeches and orchestral instruments, increasing the character’s sickness and sense of helplessness.

It is very hard to be Jochanaan in this production—always confined a space of two square feet, the singer ought to be remarkable. Johan Reuter is certainly an efficient John the Baptist, with particularly exciting moments when singing acoustically were particularly impressive and solemn.

Pavol Breslik sings a romantic and tenorial Narraboth—with some nice moments of lyricism especially at the beginning, and Katharina Magiera shines again with her gorgeous voice as the page.

As matter of good intellectual practice, I avoid comparing performances of singers that I’ve seen recently with memories from a long-gone past. In the case of this “Salome,” however, it was hard not to think about the production’s original run. This revival is still extremely shocking and compelling—days after the performance, I am still debating it with friends over drinks. It is still an event. But the Davidsen-frenzy might lead us a bit away from the admiration of the spectacle that was performed. It is a hyper-stellar revival, after all. It is a discovery that a once charmingly sweet and angelical soprano can also be a fatal woman on the stage. Therefore, it is the theater of a sole woman, a dissonant opera transformed into a prima donna’s sole saga.


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