Mediocre Salome Fails to Shock

GermanyGermany  Richard Strauss, Salome: Soloists and Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera / Asher Fisch (conductor), National Theatre, Munich, 2.4.2014 (MC)

Salome (Nadja Michael) Bavarian State Opera, photograph Wilfried Hösl
Salome (Nadja Michael) Bavarian State Opera, photograph Wilfried Hösl

Herod: Andreas Conrad (tenor)
Herodias: Gabriele Schnaut (alt)
Salome: Nadja Michael (soprano)
Jochanaan: Ian Held (baritone)
Narraboth: Joseph Kaiser (tenor)
Herodias’s Page: Okka von der Damerau (alt)
First Jew: Ulrich Reß (tenor)
Second Jew: Alexander Kaimbacher (tenor)
Third Jew: Francesco Petrozzi (tenor)
Fourth Jew: Kevin Conners (tenor)
Fifth Jew: Rafał Pawnuk (bass)
First Nazarene: Tareq Nazmi (bass)
Second Nazarene: Dean Power (tenor)
First Soldier: Torben Jürgens (bass)
Second Soldier: Christoph Stephinger (bass)
A Cappadocian: Leonard Bernad (bass)
A Slave: Rachael Wilson
Angel of Death: Olivier Vercoutère
Music Direction: Asher Fisch
Direction: William Friedkin
Stage design: Hans Schavernoch
Costumes: Petra Reinhardt
Lighting: Mark Jonathan
Chorography: David Bridel
Dramaturgie: Peter Heilker

It’s hard to fathom if this disappointing production of Richard Strauss’s Salome was down to the direction of American William Friedkin (better known as a film director) or the unresponsiveness of the major cast members. The answer is probably a bit of both. Apart from the rather swift breast baring episode by Nadja Michael as Salome it was hard to imagine all the controversy that occurred when Strauss premièred this opera in Dresden in 1905. I’m not sure what Strauss’s set designer would have thought of this attempt by Hans Schavernoch. With its elongated lines and angular corners the purply-blue set of the great terrace of King Herod’s Palace at Tiberias, Galilee in 30 AD looked more like a uninviting concrete jungle reminiscent of a twentieth-century European inner city.

Prior to the start of the opera as the auditorium lights dimmed the house manager appeared on the stage. Evidently he explained that soprano Nadja Michael was not feeling too well but rather than withdraw from the performance she would do her best to continue. Michael’s singing was adequate but wasn’t really the issue as her voice improved noticeably in weight as the opera progressed. Neither was it her ability to flounce around the stage so energetically often with a supple gymnastic-like facility, even if at one point she tripped up by carelessly standing on her dress. Dressed in a low cut black dress slashed from each thigh to the floor the barefooted Michael might have looked desirable but it was the total lack of passion and sexual tension she was able to generate between herself as Salome and Jochanaan, which is the crux around which the whole opera revolves. Her breast baring episode in front of her lecherous stepfather Herod was as erotic as a licking a cold rotting fish. With the coloured veils dropping from the roof the ten minute or so ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ choreographed by David Bridel was OK, but it could have been vastly improved. I’m sad to say that Salome’s kissing of Jochanaan’s severed head was unconvincing too. Anyone wanting to watch an example of the electrifying sexual tension that can be produced might view Jürgen Flimm’s 2008 New York Met production of Salome performed by Karita Mattila in the title role.

The majority of the costumes looked drab and uninspiring as did the energy omitted from the performances of most cast members. Giving an instantly forgettable performance tenor Andreas Conrad as the creepy looking Herod epitomised lacklustre. The only thing dazzling was the colour and style of Herod’s harem pants looking incongruous against the purple evening gown worn by raven haired Gabriele Schnaut as Herodias who looked as if she had just stepped off a set of the 1980s TV series Dallas. Nevertheless I did enjoy Schnaut’s mature vocal, firm and of significant weight. Tethered by a couple of flimsy looking leather straps the character of the dreadlocked Jochanaan played by Ian Held bleating out lightweight condemnations was instantly forgettable. Left to the imagination of the audience was the underground prison that held Jochanaan, and his severed head was the least gory depiction I have seen. More mediocrity was in store with tenor Joseph Kaiser giving a lifeless performance of the young captain Narraboth. What I did find interesting representing the spectre of mortality was the Angel of Death splendidly danced by a lithe Olivier Vercoutère.

Already in 2014 the 150th anniversary year of Richard Strauss’s birth I have heard a large number of splendidly played orchestral scores but none as curious as this performed by the Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera conducted by Asher Fisch. At times this renowned orchestra sounded exceptional but just as quick the effect felt strangely underpowered often failing to emphasise crucial motifs.

Michael Cookson

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