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.