Must-see Salome in Stockholm

SwedenSweden  Richard Strauss Salome: Soloists, The Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra / Lawrence Renes (conductor). The Royal Opera House, Stockholm, 30.11.2013. Premiere (GF)

Herodes:  Niklas Björling Rygert
Herodias:  Marianne Eklöf
Salome:  Nina Stemme
Jochanaan (John the Baptist):  Josef Wagner
Narraboth:  Jonas Degerfeldt
The Page of Herodias:  Frida Josefin Österberg
Five Jews:  Magnus Kyhle, Anders Blom, Pierre Gylbert, Jon Nilsson, Mattias Olsson
Two Nazarenes:  John Erik Eleby, Tomas Bergström
A Cappadocian:  Ian Power
Soldiers:  Mattias Milder, Lennart Forsén, Oscar Rosberg
Slaves:  Anna Danielsson, Agnes Thorell, Theres Sawander

Direction: Sofia Jupither
Set Designer: Lars Åke Thessman
Costume design and Masks: Maria Geber
Lighting design: Linus Fellbom
Choreography: Roger Lybeck

The Biblical story of Salome appears in the Gospels of St Matthew and St Mark, more or less identical. In neither Herod orders the killing of Salome. St Mark is the longer and more comprehensible:

And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother. And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:21-29)

Ever since the themes of Herodias and Salome have inspired representations in the visual arts but it was not until 1842 that Heinrich Heine in his verse narrative Atta Troll also depicted Herodias. In France towards the end of the 19th century both Stéphane Mallarmé and Gustave Flaubert took up Herodias and the latter’s short story Herodias was the basis for a libretto by Angelo Zanardini, which Giulio Ricordi sent to Massenet in 1878 who set it and the opera, Hérodiade, was premiered in 1881. Oscar Wilde was very familiar with Massenet’s opera, which deals more with the mother than the daughter, and rightly thought that the play Salome, which he was working on ten years later, would never be accepted in puritan England. He even threatened to leave England if the censorship would ban his play. Of course he was right. It wasn’t accepted so he published it in Paris (it was written in French) but it wasn’t staged there either and his dream to hear – and see – Sarah Bernhardt in the role was never realised. She was supposed to have plated it in London in 1992. At the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in Paris it was however premiered in 1896. Then the young Max Reinhardt brought it to his Kleines Theater in Berlin in 1902. Richard Strauss saw it and saw the potential as an opera. Within two years he had finished the score and the Hof-Oper in Dresden (today Semper-Oper) premiered it on 9 December 1905. There were problems on the way. The orchestra found it unplayable, several of the cast members handed back their scores as being unsingable and Marie Wittich, who was the original Salome, protested ‘I am a married and honourable woman’, and thus refused to perform the ‘Dance of the seven veils’ which was allotted to a member of the ballet. Some sources have it that the premiere was a disaster; it wasn’t and within two years it had been given at 50 opera houses. But in Vienna the censors were rigid, in spite of Gustav Mahler’s wish to perform it, at the MET it was played on 22 January 1907 but the patrons, who financed the theatre, demanded that further performances were cancelled, and in London at Covent Garden it had to be modified, to the annoyance of Thomas Beecham.

Salome came early to Stockholm. The premiere was on 14 April 1908 with Anna Oscàr in the title role and John Forsell as Jochanaan. Even the notoriously hard to please Wilhelm Peterson-Berger had some positive things to say and was especially fond of the dance of the seven veils, where he was surprised that a singing diva could be so expressive a dancer. Aino Ackté, the Finnish world star, appeared as guest the same autumn. Almost fifty years later, in 1954, Birgit Nilsson had her breakthrough in Göran Gentele’s new production and in 1982 another international Swedish dramatic soprano, Berit Lindholm, took on the title role in Göran Järvefelt’s production. When that production was last seen, in 2005, Katarina Dalayman was Salome.

Thus it was quite logical that today’s leading dramatic soprano, Nina Stemme, would be the choice when the opera is once more brought before the public. She is tremendous! And so is the whole production, directed by Sofia Jupither, who here makes her debut as opera director, having for more than a decade directed a lot of spoken theatre that has attracted much attention.

The action takes place on the terrace of a luxurious, brightly lit glass house, Herod’s palace, where an obviously deprived party is going on. With this as backdrop the cruel drama unfolds with merciless intensity in an uncommonly taut performance, watched over by a cold and silent moon, the catalyst towards which the central characters have their disparate feelings. The page sees the satellite as a woman who has risen from the grave, while Narraboth, who is in love with Salome, sees a little princess, whose feet are like white doves. Salome sees ‘a silver flower, cold and chaste, yes, like the beauty of a virgin who has remained pure’. The hysteric Herod sees a mad woman, everywhere searching for love. Only Herodias is unperturbed: ‘The moon is the moon, that’s all!’

This icing cold is transferred to the peripheral characters, the soldiers – here in black formal suits and black ties, Herod’s own CIA bodyguards. Herod is mad, unpredictable, Herodias stern, uncompromising, venomous. In a family so filled with contradictions and lack of love, what can become of the young daughter, spoilt but unloved? Her fascination for Jochanaan, who rejects her, turns into obsession, and embedded in Strauss’s ecstatic and masterly music this develops into a thriller that not even Hitchcock could have surpassed. The intensity of the drama was such that one hardly dared to breathe, not to miss the slightest detail.

Salome’s Dance of the seven veils at first made me raise an eyebrow. This, the most sensual music Richard Strauss ever wrote, should be seductive, alluring, but here it was orgiastic, brutal, obscene – a symptom, possibly, of Herod’s perversity.

Sofia Jupither is lucky to have gathered such a superb cast, from the vulnerable and human page, touchingly played and sung by Frida Josefin Österberg, via all the minor roles – where Magnus Kyhle as usual drew a vivid portrait of the first Jew – to the quintet of central characters. Jonas Degerfeldt’s Narraboth might have been a mite more full-blooded but this young commanding officer of the guard is rather pale. Niklas Björling Rygert’s Herod, erratic, bewildered, was spot on and Marianne Eklöf was a dignified Herodias.

As Jochanaan the Austrian baritone Josef Wagner impressed greatly, vocally as well as through his acting. Jochanaan’s stern and uncompromising character was well depicted and when he told Salome: ‘There is but one who can save thee. So seek Him. He is in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, and He talketh with His disciples …’ there was such beauty and warmth in his tone.

And of course, Nina Stemme, as I have already hinted at, can’t possibly have any superior as Salome in the world today. As she has shown before at the Royal Opera she is an admirable actress and she sang the role with such intensity and such brilliance that the goose pimples arrived promptly. The culmination is of course her long final monologue before Jochanaan’s head on the silver shield – the most remarkable love duet in the history of opera, as someone called it, where only one part sings while the other remains mute. This time Salome got not only his head but all of him and when she lay there embracing the dead body the scene was both touching and perverse.

I can’t remember ever experiencing such violent ovations at the Royal Opera before and they were certainly well deserved. Besides the Vasa Museum Stockholm now has another must-see attraction: the Royal Opera’s new Salome!

Göran Forsling

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