IN: Reviews

Salome Brought the House Down


Soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Salome (Stu Rosner photo)
Soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Salome (Stu Rosner photo)

From the moment Andris Nelsons took the reins of the monster orchestra last night at Symphony Hall, he let them loose, yet the balance and timbre of Strauss’s score, a sine non qua of any successful production of Salome, were attended to with accuracy and warmth. Often Nelsons would turn and beam a grin at his concert master; indeed at some points it was rather strange to see him taking so much joy in his work even as some of the darkest music of the Western canon swirled around him. The undulating contra-bassoon in the “Dance of the Seven Veils” and John Ferillo’s plangent oboe in several places were amazing—the string tremeli looked arm busting yet maintained poise and gleam… everybody: orchestra, singers and conductor breathed as one. As the final, brutal chords were struck, the audience leapt to their feet en masse and applauded for well-nigh a half hour. Nelsons should bring his friends to his new home often.

Richard Strauss’s Salome , though, is not without a long and troubled history in the U.S. The New York premiere occurred in 1907 with the Metropolitan Opera, two years after its world premiere in Dresden. Shocked, the board of the Met then banned it, and continued to censor it through 1934. In the puritan hall of the Boston Symphony, Strauss’s femme fatale was held firmly at an arm’s length for almost a century. Indeed, while there was a fetish for the controversial “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which was excerpted by the BSO just about every five years throughout the first half of the 20th century, a performance of the entire opera had to wait 84 years until Ozawa produced it in 1991 (with Hildegard Behrens in the title role and again in 2001 with Deborah Voigt at Ozawa’s farewell).

Oddly, beginning in the 50s, the fetish turned to necrophilia as conductors in Boston gradually replaced the controversial dance excerpt with the disturbing final scene in which the title character kisses the severed head of John the Baptist. Finally, in 2004, Levine gave the final scene alone and ignored the dance completely. Since then Salome had been absent from Boston but on Thursday Night, for one night only, the BSO’s new music director Andris Nelsons returned to symphony hall with Herod’s twisted stepdaughter at his arm and they brought down the house.

Strauss drew his libretto from Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, and set it in an anti-romantic score marked by a thick and bi-tonal harmonic organization, a network of leitmotivic expression and a decadent monster orchestra within one act of about 90 minutes. The title role is epic and requires an extraordinary strength and pacing. Salome remains onstage and singing throughout the opera, but the most important parts occur only at the end; her voice must not become fatigued.

German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin joined the BSO for this performance, following a successful production of Salome with Nelsons and the Vienna State Opera on Sunday in New York and on her way to Vienna to play Sieglinde for Jeffrey Tate’s production of Die Walküre. Barkmin did not disappoint. Her voice was powerful and clear throughout its range. At the top, it could be slightly shrill—a color that is more than appropriate for Herod’s spoiled stepdaughter. But at its depths, the real challenge of Salome, her voice was riveting. In the moments where it had to, her voice cut through the orchestra with ease, but in the quieter and more intimate moments it sharpened our attention to a steely point; the memory of “Ich bin nicht hungrig, Tetrarch” still gives me chills. In all, her voice and characterization were terrifying, flashing between (emotionally) naked seduction and markedly anti-social narcissism.

German tenor Gerhard Siegel’s Herod, also coming off the New York production, was remarkable as well. His diction was flawless and vibrant and the squillo or “ping” in his voice hit the pitches with scientific precision. As an actor he brought out a childish petulance to Herod’s dark perversions, pointing to a similarity with Salome, as if their vices were drawn from the same rotten cloth. His charismatic grin forced the audience to laugh at even his darkest moments of humor. His wife Herodias, played by Jan Henschel, had trouble keeping up with her lascivious husband and insane daughter—and her voice occasionally strained (appropriately) against the orchestra, depicting her struggle to control the events happening around her. Her cynical banter with Herod reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Whether onstage or invisible, bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Jochanaan, also had superior enunciation; his sonorous voice, righteousness and gravitas provided the perfect foil for the other characters in the drama.

In the end, the production gave life to the hope that Nelsons might continue James Levine’s famous commitment to lead the BSO in concert performances of opera. Unfortunately, in Nelsons’s first season as Music Director he will conduct no complete operas. I hope that the message in Thursday’s full house and extended applause got to the management—Boston wants more shows like this one.

Postscript: The social networks at the local music schools were ablaze today concerning this production. Apparently Henschel and other members of the cast were out to dinner when they met some graduate students in music (the students were working at the restaurant). In a gesture that puts most forms of audience development to shame, the cast offered these students their comp tickets to this sold-out show and brought them backstage.

Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I had the good fortune to be at the concert, and it was tremendous. The instant standing ovation and applause that would not stop was for both a stunning performance of what is still a strange and dynamic piece and for the promise that the performance holds for the future. Very exciting.

    Comment by Paul McGovern — March 8, 2014 at 9:33 am

  2. I attend the Friday A series and have for perhaps 25 years. Before that when I lived in Boston I had a Tuesday subscription. Never were we treated to an opera.Generally opera performances are limited to Thursday and Saturday nights. This is obviously for the singers voices. But we also don’t get other performances of big works that are done on the rare Friday nights. One would think we paid less for our seats the way we are treated.

    Comment by Roy Hammer — March 8, 2014 at 1:45 pm

  3. “In the end, the production gave life to the hope that Nelsons might continue James Levine’s famous commitment to lead the BSO in concert performances of opera. Unfortunately, in Nelsons’s first season as Music Director he will conduct no complete operas. I hope that the message in Thursday’s full house and extended applause got to the management—Boston wants more shows like this one.”

    My parents had friends who were very clear on the point that they didn’t want to hear singing at BSO concerts: if they wanted singing, they’d go to the opera. We thought that was an extreme position, but although MAestro Levine occasionally brings the Met orchestra out of the pit into the concert hall, our local opera companies haven’t done so to my recollection.

    Speaking of our local opera companies, it would be a real boost for them if Maestro Nelsons would bring some of his friends from the opera world to perform with them. It would be even better if his contract allows him to conduct and opera with a local company.

    At any rate, I’ve enjoyed some of the concert opera performances I’ve heard from the BSO, as well as vocal soloists within an evening’s program. So I’d like an opera every year or two, but I think it would be unfortunate to crowd out the instrumental music which which is the BSO’s métier with more than that. There’s enough symphonic music which deserves to be performed to fill an entire season.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 8, 2014 at 3:30 pm

  4. While I understand Mr. Hammer’s argument on the 2nd floor, it is totally a distraction from music/review/discussion. A higher sense of morality urge me to pull it back before the topic diverges further.

    Talking about morality, Herod is consciously immoral and aesthetically capable (in this opera), while his/brother’s wife is amoral and incapable. In general, I don’t like any clown looking acting and I don’t like audience laughing at him. (Gents, don’t you ever have such experience? OMG, this girl looks so beautiful, yet every piece of my gut was disgusted by her frivolity). I liked Herod’s performance, and it could be greater if there is more seriousness.

    Narraboth’s ‘Wie schoen ist die P…. heute Nacht’is so important. I’d like to hear a purer voice, innocent young male. Osuna’s voice timbre is not pure enough for me. Although the title role singer is young, her voice has certain dark texture, which is a little too much for the 1st Scene (for my taste). Well, think about those high and light solo instrument accompany for Salome… The coldness works better for the 2nd scene, even though i have not figured out why the particular line ‘I am not hungry’ became the reviewer’s inspiration.

    The real disappointment came from Jochanaan, who did not have strong and lasting voice (He was not dying like that). It is one’s dream to hear a Jochanaan having a voice like Van Dam, isn’t it? I only can keep dreaming on that.

    The meaning of ‘production’ may have been broadened, but in my mind there was no production. To match her darkness, Darkmin was in black. (Of course, I’d prefer different costumes. dove white for the 1st scene). Looking at the picture in detail, I see a surprise, because there are silvers roses on her gown, which instantly reminds me of the natural connection between Salome and Der Rosenkavalier.

    Comment by Thorsten — March 8, 2014 at 3:43 pm

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