Konwitschny’s Salome at the Gothenburg Opera: Parts of It Are Excellent

SwedenSweden  R. Strauss: Salomé,  Soloists,GöteborgsOperan’s Orchestra, Patrik Ringborg (conductor), GöteborgsOperan main stage, Gothenburg, 22.10.2011 (NS)


Herod – Thomas Sunnegårdh
Herodias – Ulrika Tenstam
Salome – Annalena Persson
Jochanaan – Mats Persson
Narraboth – Nikola Matisic
Page – Erika Sax
Jews – Ingemar Andersson, Erik Enqvist, Marcus Liljedahl and Jonas Olofsson
Nazarenes – Mats Almgren and Henrik Andersson
Soldiers – Åke Zetterström and Thomas Sonefors
A Cappadocian – Joel Rosenlund
A little girl – Klara Holm, Annie Eriksson and Thea Wanneklint

Production team:

Conductor – Patrik Ringborg
Director – Peter Konwitschny
Assistant director – Meisje Hummel
Set and costumes – Johannes Leiacker
Lighting – Manfred Voss

Salome (Annalena Persson) and Jochanaan (Mats Persson)

I came out of the Gothenburg Opera’s Salome with mixed feelings. Oscar Wilde’s story is compelling and Richard Strauss’ music spellbinding (especially when played with as much passion as the Gothenburg Opera Orchestra and soloists delivered). And maybe the director Peter Konwitschny has a point when he argues that Salome must be remade to shock 21st-century audiences as much as it shocked in the fin de siècle. But rather than adding a dimension to the opera, this staging was mainly a distraction from the music.

Seen and Heard’s reviewer Paul Korenhof has already written a very good critique of Mr Konwitschny’s staging (from this production’s run in Amsterdam) to which I have little to add. What struck me particularly was the failure of the director’s effort to shock his audience. The production has a recommended minimum age of 15 for the audience and the advertising warned of “strong scenes”, but the insertion of cannibalism and necrophilia on stage into the two orchestral interludes fell totally flat. These mimed sequences are so obviously contrived (and unrelated to the plot) that much of their impact disappears. I averted my eyes not out of revulsion but because I wanted to concentrate on the sublime music instead. That other aspects of the staging contradict the libretto (for example, Narraboth is shot by Herod rather than committing suicide) just adds a sense of confusion.

It was not all bad. The contemporary setting was if nothing else very effective in bringing out the decadence and debauchery of Herod’s court in a believable way. Mr Konwitschny’s sympathetic interpretation of Salome – a confused teenager trapped in a sick environment, rather than a femme fatale – also made much more sense than most other aspects of the staging.

Musically the production was altogether in another league. Patrik Ringborg is a rare sight in his native Sweden, spending much of his time conducting in Germany. That is Sweden’s loss: his understanding of the music was outstanding and his conducting was inspired and inspiring. It was a great pleasure to take my eyes off the stage and watch the orchestra during the two interludes, as they were clearly as gripped by the music as I was. Strauss’ music requires a top-class orchestra to do it full justice, and here in Gothenburg it has got one.

The supporting cast were strong (as is usual in Gothenburg), with their arid theological arguments being a rarely enjoyable part of the staging. Thomas Sunnegårdh’s Herod was believably debauched and sang rather well. Ulrika Tenstam’s Herodias was however rather hyperactive (perhaps more the director’s fault than hers).

Mats Persson (Jochanaan) should get a prize for managing to project his splendid baritone through a paper bag for significant sections of his part (see picture). With or without this encumbrance he acted his part well, especially in his first long duet with Salome. His voice was at its most beautiful when urging Salome to seek salvation with Jesus. He only looked a little awkward in the final minutes of the opera, where he was on stage with Salome but had nothing to sing (since both Strauss and Wilde had intended him to be dead by that point).

Annalena Persson has sung a number of challenging dramatic soprano roles (as well as Salome in Amsterdam), and with that experience behind her she rose to the occasion here as well. Her singing never wavered and rose to a terrific outpouring at the end of the opera. She might not sound like a teenager (though probably no soprano capable of singing the part does) but she certainly acted like a highly believable one. Her acting was the best of any of the soloists, with the exception of a somewhat awkward dance of the seven veils.

This production is difficult to evaluate as a whole. I’m not sure whether, like the original curate’s egg, the whole is spoiled by its poor parts. But given how vividly atmospheric Strauss’ music is, I feel a concert performance would have been at least as good an experience.

Niklas Smith
Photo © Mats Bäcker