An Excellent New production of Salome in Berlin

22/03/2018

Strauss, Salome: Soloists, Staatskapelle Berlin /Thomas Guggeis (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 17.3.2018. (MB)

Salome (c) Monika Rittershaus).

Cast:

Herod – Gerhard Siegel
Herodias – Marina Prudenskaya
Salome – Aušrine Stundytė
Jochanaan – Thomas J. Mayer
Narraboth – Nikolai Schukoff
Herodias’s Page – Annika Schlicht
Jews – Dietmar Kerschbaum, Ziad Nehme, Linard Vrielink, Andrés Moreno García, David Oštrek
Nazarenes – Adam Kutny, Ulf Dirk Mädler
Soldiers – Arttu Kataja, Dominic Barbiere
A Cappadocian – David Oštrek
A Slave – Corinna Scheurle
Oscar Wilde – Christian Natter

Production:

Hans Neuenfels (director)
Philipp Lossau (assistant director)
Reinhard von der Thannen (designs)
Kathrin Hauer (assistant stage designer)
Sommer Ulrickson (choreography)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Henry Arnold (dramaturgy)

‘These Germans: they are obsessed with sex.’ Such were the puzzling words I heard from an irate Frenchman in the queue behind me for the cloakroom at the close of this performance of Salome. Far be it to suggest that ‘the French’ might also have a reputation for an interest in such matters, but I could not help but wonder whether, if he were weary of at least implicit sexual context onstage, Salome were really the opera for him. As it happens, Hans Neuenfels’s excellent new production, provocative in the best sense, is far more concerned with the absence of sex, sexual repression, the ultimate inability to perform, and, following Oscar Wilde in particular here, the aestheticisation of such problems, than with sexual display or fulfilment. Prudishness and aversion take many forms, however, as Neuenfels also suggests.

For Wilde is placed, increasingly literally, centre stage. Not having looked properly at the cast list, let alone the programme, beforehand, I had not realised that this would be so. Instead, as intended, it gradually became clear that the actor, whose role I could not quite place, either in the work or more laterally, was Wilde himself. Not that the accomplished, mesmerisingly versatile Christian Natter, in this entirely mute role, is made up to resemble the playwright: we are, let us give thanks, at a level of drama beyond the caricature of the impressionist. Eventually the green carnation gives the game away: the only instance throughout the entire evening of a colour on stage that is not black, white, or red (typically sharp, meaningfully coloured designs by long-time Neuenfels collaborator, Reinhard von der Thannen). But before that, a world of Victorian sexual repression, that of the society from which Wilde sprang, has been constructed. Its imperialism is nodded to, in very British Empire uniforms for the soldiers: let us play at governing the Middle East, with catastrophic consequences to be seen to the present day and beyond.

More to the point, John the Baptist, foreteller of Christianity – perhaps, in this reading, more so than Christ himself, certainly more of a hypocritical moral fanatic – is encased in what Neuenfels calls ‘a phallus or rocket of indignation, a constant appeal to obdurate, concealed, packed away carnality. This results in a constant ban, a threat.’ The traditional cistern is gone, but as Henry Arnold, Neuenfels’s dramaturge points out, Strauss wrote to Ernst von Schuch, conductor of the first performance, that Jochanaan ‘should be understandable without a voice pipe. Maybe he could sing through a gauze veil (a hole in the wall, invisible to the audience) with his head two feet above the floor so that he sees the conductor and can sing directly to the audience. This is very important.’ Take that, alleged ‘respecters’ of ‘the composer’s intentions’! What is it that our proto-ayatollah objects to? In a sense, it does not really matter, for such things are more matters of opportunism than anything else, as the ‘religious Right’ backers of Donald Trump testify more clearly than ever. What Neuenfels opens up is the possibility of a more thoroughgoing exploration of gender and orientation. Salome herself becomes a significantly gender-bending figure, her absurd, ultra-stylised (which is, crucially, to say aestheticised) Victorian bustle transposed onto others, Wilde and Jochanaan chief amongst them. Who dresses up? Who dresses whom? With what intent?

When Herod commands, or rather requests, ‘Dance for me, Salome’, does he too want as much of an aesthetic as a sexual experience? Do we err to distinguish the two? (Given recent reports of sexual abuse by conductors, the question seems especially relevant now.) He has his own reasons, as such ‘immoral’ rulers tend to, in many ways far less objectionable than those who loudly trumpet their ‘morality’; he is weak more than anything else, as signalled by Herodias’s theft of and refusal to return his ring of kingship. Make of that gesture, so rich in symbolism political and sexual, what you will. Meanwhile Wilde, increasingly confident, perhaps as in his play, in his denunciation of denunciation, allows his homosexuality to become clearer – and, more important still, to acquire greater dramatic agency. When he dances, as angel of death, with Salome, a game of omnisexual sadomasochism unfolds, the poet’s leather harness-corset (which?) and what he does with it speaking a thousand words (back at least as far as Neuenfels’s brilliant Salzburg Così fan tutte, a work Strauss, a true Mozart connoisseur, so adored).

But, in a world of such repression, what does one put in the place of sexual freedom? Aestheticism, of course, in Wilde’s case – and, surely, in Strauss’s too, throughout his career. Ever the student of Nietzsche rather than Wagner, Strauss believed in art above all else: indeed, perhaps only in art. Thus the constructions we place on stage, and the very constructions we make of them in our minds too, play their part in a similar game, perhaps even identical, at the very least related – depending, most likely, upon who we are, even how we feel on the night. Salome – sometimes a girl, sometimes a more progressive, perhaps older, woman with something of the caricatured lesbian to her, sometimes perhaps a surrogate for the young man Wilde, on and off stage, may be seeking – focuses her own aesthetics upon her construction of Jochanaan, who sometimes resembles what she thinks she wants, yet in other respects could hardly be more distant. The pent-up rage in which she smashes one of the multiple, ‘beautiful’ busts arranged on stage for her delectation following the dance is both a genuine act and a ‘work of art’, or at least an aspiration thereto, in itself. Has anyone learned of ‘love’ then? It seems unlikely. We have nevertheless learned a good deal about the lengths to which many of us will go in order to prevent ourselves and others from doing so.

Thomas Guggeis, originally scheduled to conduct but one of these performances as assistant to Christoph von Dohnányi, ended up conducting them all. He did a very good job, the Staatskapelle Berlin seemingly very happy to play under his leadership. The weird musical world, in which dancers do not dance and non-dancers do, came across with considerable dramatic power. I have heard more outrageously, or at least phantasmagorically, coloured performances, but no single performance is likely in itself to respond equally to the manifold possibilities of Strauss’s score. There can be little doubt that this young conductor is a musician of great accomplishment, nor that we shall be hearing much more from him. What an opportunity, though, to have fallen to him!

If tonal beauty were your thing, then Aušrine Stundytė’s Salome would most likely not be for you. Is the problematisation of such priorities, though, not one of the dramatic themes, at least possibly, of work and production? She certainly entered into the role with dramatic gusto and considerable stage presence. One heard, moreover, many more of the words, words moreover imbued with true verbal potency, than will often be the case. Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Jochanaan likewise navigated intriguingly between such polarities, offering a solution, however provisional, suited to his character and his portrayal. Looking at the royal couple from the other side of that (doubtless too) crude opposition, Gerhard Siegel and Marina Prudenskaya offered formidably sung performances, more so than one will often hear, without sacrifice to the drama. Nikolai Schukoff’s astute, enigmatic, vocally ravishing Narraboth was perhaps the single most impressive performance of all.

Indeed, at the time, one rather resented Narraboth’s being elbowed aside by Wilde – which is surely the point. And yet soon we did not, for criticism of society, his, Salome’s, and ours, becomes all the more necessary. Until the drama, musical rather than scenic, less closes than stops. It could be Wozzeck, almost, except in its aestheticism, it is anything but. Wozzeck does not die out of boredom; Salome does, but whose? Patriarchy remains, but do we care – truly care, as opposed to claiming to?

Mark Berry

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