Germany Strauss-Wochen (1) – Salome: Soloists, Statisterie and Male Dancers from the Deutsche Oper, Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Alain Altonoglu (conductor). Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 6.4.2016. (MB)
Herodes – Thomas Blondelle
Herodias – Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet
Salome – Allison Oakes
Jochanaan – Michael Volle
Narraboth – Attilio Glaser
Page – Annika Schlicht
First Jew – James Kryshak
Second Jew, Slave – Gideon Poppe
Third Jew – Andrew Dickinson
Fourth Jew – Clemens Bieber
Fifth Jew – Andrew Harris
First Nazarene – Dong-Hwan Lee
Second Nazarene – Thomas Lehman
First Soldier – Alexei Botnarciuc
Second Soldier – Tobias Kehrer
Cappadocian – Michael Adams
Salome as child – Alix Heyblom, Elisabeth Johanssen, Laura Meyer, Leonie Schöning, Maria Schulz, Katharina von Stackelberg
Dancers/Dummies – Uri Burger, Floris Dahlgrün, Alexander Fend, Nikos Fragkou, Oren Lazovski
Claus Guth (director)
William Robertson (revival director)
Muriel Gerstner (designs)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Sommer Ulrickson (choreography)
Yvonne Gebauer, Curt A Roester (dramaturgy)
Five consecutive nights of Richard Strauss: how could anyone resist? Plenty of opera-goers would have little hesitation, and not just those for whom Donizetti and Verdi are the height of musical sophistication. Strauss, as I have discussed in one of the chapters of my book, After Wagner, remains an object of distrust for many. Their problems often seem to be moral, or at least to be couched in moral terms; perhaps Strauss has turned out to be the Nietzschean Anti-Christ after all. (Had Strauss called his Alpine Symphony, as was his early intention, The Antichrist, it and we might have been saved a great deal of spectacularly uninformed sniping.) We shall see; perhaps more to the point, we shall also hear. Will this prove too much of a good, a bad, or even an evil thing? I doubt it, but perhaps I am already a lost cause. At any rate, the Deutsche Oper’s Strauss festival offers an extraordinary opportunity, for which I nobly put myself forward as moral-æsthetic guinea pig.
Schoenberg made the accusation – at least he had good reason to feel personally affronted – that Strauss’s was the art of a Marzipanmeister: ‘Problems arise for him and are solved by him in the same way: he misunderstands them. But it cannot be disputed that he has dealt with them: he has hidden them under a coating of sugar icing ... This is not the way of thinking of a man whom God has given a mission.’ One can well imagine Strauss’s materialist response to that. Stravinsky was, if anything, more hostile still: ‘I would like to admit all Strauss’s operas to whichever purgatory punishes triumphant vulgarity. Their musical substance is cheap and poor; it cannot interest a musician today. That now so ascendant Ariadne … makes me want to scream.’ Well, scream away, Igor – although perhaps not this week, in which Ariadne auf Naxos, which surely stole from your neo-Classical future, will not appear. However, Salome, Elektra, Die ägyptische Helena, Die Liebe der Danae, and Der Rosenkavalier will.
Claus Guth’s Salome, first seen here in January, sets the bar high for what is to follow. It offered a splendid follow-up, perhaps less profound (but is not the work itself?) but even more chilling than Dmitri Tcherniakov’s outstanding Parsifal for the Staatsoper. Childhood horrors loom large, obscuring, perhaps even obliterating, the boundaries between ‘then’ and ‘now’; memory and above all trauma are like that. Can we ever recover? Do we even really want to? And what are our coping strategies? Do some of us, perhaps as self-proclaimed æstheticists or, worse, protectors of the artwork (c.f. the Donald Trump-like ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’, or its provisional wing, ‘Gegen Regietheater in der Oper’), try to take refuge in the very thing that should be challenging us, waking us up, and leading us to confrontation, even catharsis?
If opera is, to you, ‘about’ pretty frocks, then you might be out of luck here; but salvation of sorts it at hand, for there are some handsome suits and sportcoats instead; indeed, clothes rails are full of them. Indeed, dressing up – attempting, like AMOP to avoid the questions, or to misunderstand, to smother them, as Schoenberg accused Strauss of doing – is thrust to the forefront of Guth’s staging, once the lights have been switched on, Olaf Freese’s lighting very much at the heart of the drama and its (would-be) turning-points. However, we must first travel the road to the superior (deceptively so?) gentleman’s outfitter – wonderful designs by Muriel Gerstner! – in which stylish ‘solutions’ will be no problem, though likewise no solution.
For the first scene has been dark, grim, at times in a weirdly twilit state of suspended animation; it has been far from clear who the actors in this drama even are, or might be held to be. Salome tours the set – her mind, or something more? – in agitation but, at times, in the pleasure that might, uncomfortably for all of us, especially as audience-voyeurs, accompany such agitation. The table at which she has sat – will sit? still sits? should sit? wishes to sit? – with her parents is at the centre. Does she wish to relive or to pre-empt what will happen there later? It is unclear, as our recollections often are. Shop dummies haunt her. Or are they ‘real’ people, acting as dummies? Who is operating them? How can they be stopped? Should they be stopped? We only really begin to make sense of this – we cannot, just as the opera says we should not, see Jochanaan for quite some time – once the lights have been switched on; or do we just delude ourselves that we make sense of it? For much of what happened there happens again, albeit in a shrine to fashionable consumption, Herodias making the most of the readily available alcohol. Might you not too, in such circumstances?
The child versions Salome has seen of herself earlier come into play most starkly for the Dance of the Seven Veils. There are six of them, seven including her, and they are the playthings, the instantiations of trauma. There is no need for titillating nudity (although not in the sense that our ‘conservative’ friends would understand); whatever has happened and is continuing to happen is genuinely shocking. Should Werktreue fanatics complain that they have been denied the opportunity to play Herod? Over to them. Salome tears the head off Jochanaan herself. But he had somehow become a dummy in the meantime. Was he always? What was it she really wanted from him. An answer is perhaps suggested by the similarities, physical as well as dramatic, between our prophet and the Tetrarch, productively rather than negligently at odds with the differences in soundworld. (Strauss simply could not ‘do’ religion, which, given his materialist credo, does him a certain degree of credit. Or does it?)
The return to darkness is most traumatic of all. Like many a victim, we feel, indeed we are, disoriented. Yet we have the additional guilt of that aforementioned voyeurism. Is Strauss’s sensationalism being given especially disconcerting musico-dramatic form? Julius Korngold wrote of the composer: ‘The Germans want a priest, someone who will champion an art with deep intentions. Strauss is driven by the ego sensibility of the modern artist, who wants above all to serve himself and his sensations.’ Is he right? If so, is that a problem? Herod orders Salome dead, but nothing happens; or does it. Her child form begins again; or does she? Have we returned to childhood, or never left it? We do not seem to have ‘moved on’.
Such a reaction certainly seemed to be suggested by those dreadful closing chords. For whilst I had sometimes been a little unsure about aspects of Alain Altinoglu’s conducting, I was not here. The deadness, the modern(ist) materialism, at least as shocking as that of the conclusion to Elektra, registered as powerfully and yet as dully (in a positive sense) as I have heard. It was at such moments of modernist crisis, quite in keeping with the staging, that not only Altinoglu’s fastidiousness but also his ear for marriage between timbre and harmony registered with great musico-dramatic import. I have heard performances of Salome which have danced more freely, and to start with I found that more of a problem. As time went on, I began to suspect that I was relying too much upon my own memories, false or otherwise; a performance today of Salome, in this particular production, need not, perhaps even should not, sound like the Salome of Böhm or Karajan. There was certainly no gainsaying the quality of the performance from the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, whose colours phantasmagorically shifted as the harmonies ground – and ground us down. (Or should that have been vice versa?)
Catherine Naglestad had been due to sing the title role. Her replacement, Allison Oakes, proved an outstanding replacement. I had not come across her previously, but certainly hope that I shall do so again. Hers was a tireless, unceasingly rewarding performance, vocally and ‘dramatically’, insofar as the two may be distinguished. Her lyricism called into question her trauma and yet justified it; in this case, there is no doubt as to the necessity of the vice versa. Herodes is a larger role than I tend to remember. (What was that about faulty remembrance?) Thomas Blondelle offered a detailed, disturbing portrayal: far better sung than one often hears, yet just as heedful of dramatic requirements. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet was a splendid grande dame Herodias; elements of caricature are surely justified, indeed written in. She was a monster and proud of it. Attilio Glaser’s sweetly sung, sincere, hopelessly lovelorn Narraboth left one wanting more. But more, of course, was not his fate on this night.
Above all, though, this felt like a strong company achievement; those singing smaller roles, those engaging as dancers and as ‘extras’, as much part of the dreadful events as the rest of us, whether on stage or in the audience. With trepidation, I should like to see this again, to try once again to make sense of what I might see, hear, and remember.