Nadja Michael as Salome in Istanbul: No Stage, but Plenty of Theatrics.

TurkeyTurkey R. Strauss, Salome Op. 54 (Opera in Concert): Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, Sascha Goetzel (conductor), ‘In Memory of Leyla Gencer’ at Lutfi Kirdar Auditorium, Istanbul, 28.03.2012 (AM)

Salome – Nadja Michael (soprano)
Herodes – Thomas Moser (tenor)
Herodias – Larissa Diadkova (mezzo-soprano)
Jochanaan – Morten Frank Larsen (baritone)
Narraboth – Peter Son (tenor)
Page of Herodias and Slave – Valentina Kutzarova (mezzo-soprano)
First Jew – Riccardo Botta (tenor)
Second Jew – Nik Kevin Koch (tenor)
Third Jew – Paul Onega (tenor)
Fourth Jew – Mark Bowman-Hester (tenor)
Fifth Jew – Robert Vibrayan (bass)
First Nazarene – Wade Kernot (bass)
Second Nazarene – Attila Fodre (tenor)
First Soldier – Andrzej Hutnik (bass)
Second Soldier – Stephan Bootz (bass)
A Cappadocian – Attila Fodre (bass)

Salome Photo credit: courtesy of Borusan Culture and Arts
Photo credit: courtesy of Borusan Culture and Arts

Seen and Heard’s very own Stan Metzger, in his May 2012 review of The Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome in its concert version, writes: “Harold C. Schonberg’s 1974 adulatory review of this first Carnegie Hall Salome could, with a change in names, be copied and pasted here.” By the same token, his review of that evening could, with a change in names (and a few of the accolades), be copied and pasted here.

Salome may sound like an odd choice for a concert organized as a tribute to the late Leyla Gencer, since ‘La Diva Turca’ was recognized for her performances of doomed romantic heroines of Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi rather than the neurotic, lustful and sexually charged biblical character in Strauss’ masterpiece. The choice becomes much clearer, however, when you consider the similarities between Ms. Gencer and this evening’s star, Nadja Michael. While neither are particularly noted for the greatness of their respective voices, both are justifiably admired for their predisposition for dramatic flair and technical capacity for coloratura. I never had the opportunity to watch Leyla Gencer on stage, but it was evident from her performance this evening that Ms. Michael, who has recently converted her range from mezzo-soprano to soprano territory, has a tremendous capacity for both.

It is very unfortunate that the world of classical music still spends undue time and energy on the looks of female musicians and singers -the ongoing discussions about Yuja Wang, the Chinese pianist, being a case in point. Nadja Michael’s physique, similarly, has been the focal point of attention since her burst onto stage at La Scala with her acclaimed Salome performance. She has since been criticized for using her figure, and sometimes over-accentuating certain more flirtatious aspects of the characters she sings. She is, in fact, almost uniformly given more praise for her acting abilities than her crooning. The concert version of Salome, where the cast sits on chairs in front of the orchestra and stand up only to read their parts, at the least, could potentially present an opportunity to judge her on her vocal merits alone. Well, not so easy.

Ms. Michael’s voice is certainly uneven. Her lower and middle registers are obviously more supple and developed than her higher ones. Her soprano singing can sometimes sound shrieky with too much vibrato. Her brighter moments came during her pleading with the prophet where her timbre was suitably fragile and her final scene with the capitated head where she echoes the proud and unapologetic heroine. It is important to realize, however, that Ms. Michael is not a lieder singer, and whatever she lacks in her unadulterated singing voice, she more than makes up for it in her playacting skills –as she did tonight through her body language, her posture and her facial expressions which ranged from austere (during her despondent interaction with Morten Frank Larsen as Jochanaan) to bone-chilling (during her mandate for his head). You could perhaps argue that the staging is all too crucial for Strauss’ work to be realized effectively (think the emerging of Jochanaan from the cistern, the flagrant necrophilia, and of course, the Dance of the Seven Veils), but concentrating on the text and the music, and not, say, how realistic the severed head looks, may prove to be a very edifying experience as well.

The rest of the cast was a mixed bag: Morten Frank Larsen as Jochanaan often sounded hoarse, especially when he was singing off-stage (and I’m assuming here that there wasn’t an intentional sound effect projecting a cistern reverb), and Larissa Diadkova sounded underwhelmed during those crucial moments when she is expected to overrule Herodes with her tenacity. Peter Sonn as Narraboth, on the other hand, could have been my favorite performer here this evening. He was most convincing as the young, excitable man whose unrequited love for Salome paves the way for the whole plot to unfold. Salutations also have to go to the infamous Five Jews whose complex, intertwined, contrapuntal lines were delivered as clear as can be.

Of course, accompanying this talented cast was the conductor Sascha Goetzel, who in his usual energetic mode propelled the BIPO towards a high-strung and ominous reading of the music. Borusan’s strings section, although proficient and warm-sounding, almost always takes second place to their brass section, which I believe is a truly world-class ensemble. And it is in music such as Strauss’ where the winds are almost as central as the strings that you get to experience what a great orchestra they have become.

As a whole, the evening proved to be satisfactory, and whether one likes it or not, benefitted from Nadja Michael’s theatrics. If this were a CD release, it probably wouldn’t be my first choice for sitting down to listen to, but as far as an opera-sans-decor to be experienced live goes, it provided enough drama, tension and wholesome playing.

Alain Matalon