Manipulation permeates Hans Neuenfels’ production of Salome for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden

GermanyGermany R. Strauss, Salome: Soloists, Staatskapelle Berlin / Thomas Guggeis (conductor), Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 4.12.2019. (MB)

Salome (c) Monika Rittershaus

Director – Hans Neuenfels
Assistant Director – Philipp Lossau
Designs – Reinhard von der Thannen
Assistant Stage designer – Kathrin Hauer
Choreography – Sommer Ulrickson
Lighting – Stefan Bolliger
Dramaturgy – Henry Arnold

Herod – Vincent Wolfsteiner
Herodias – Marina Prudenskaya
Salome – Aušrine Stundytė
Jochanaan – Thomas J. Mayer
Narraboth – Peter Sonn
Herodias’s Page – Annika Schlicht
Jews – Ziad Nehme, Michael Smallwood, Matthew Peña, Andrés Moreno Garcia, David Oštrek
Nazarenes – Adam Kutny, Ulf Dirk Mädler
Soldiers – Arttu Kataja, Erik Rosenius
A Cappadocian – David Oštrek
A Slave – Ireene Ollino
Oscar Wilde – Christian Natter
Guards – Ernesto Amico, Allen Boxer, Nikos Fragkou, Jonathan Heck, Maximilian Reisinger, Tom-Veit Weber

Manipulation lies at the heart of Richard Strauss’s art. One might argue that it lies at the heart of all art; there would be a strong case to be made for that. However, there is something particular about Straussian manipulation. In some ways not dissimilar to that of Puccini — both composers are expert at pressing particular emotional buttons and having many listeners enjoy such manipulation in full knowledge that they are being manipulated — it differs in the extraordinary level of technical sophistication and, often if not always, in the nested levels of knowing reflexion-in-contrivance. Artifice is good, then: perhaps, after Nietzsche, more in opposition to ‘bad’ than to ‘evil’. For Strauss, as Salome makes abundantly clear, is no more a Christian, perhaps even less willing to admit of metaphysical transcendence, than Nietzsche, of whom he had been an avid and discerning reader.

Manipulation lies at the heart of Salome too; it lies also at the heart of Hans Neuenfels’s production, which, having seen when new last year, I was keen to see again. What I think came across still more strongly than last time — this may just have been me — was the central character’s awakening to that manipulation and, concomitantly, to her ability to manipulate. Such was a signal achievement for Aušrine Stundytė, showing herself every inch a singing actress, throwing everything into a performance that, rightly, was not always pretty, not always to be kept within bounds, very much a force of nature: trying, testing, both winning and losing. Working with Neuenfels’s staging — for which we should also understand Reinhard von der Thannen’s striking designs, Sommer Ulrickson’s choreography, and Henry Arnold’s thoughtful and provocative dramaturgy — we saw and heard from Stundytė a Salome led to self-discovery and ultimately to tragedy not only by Strauss but verbally and visibly by Oscar Wilde himself.

The latter’s advent, first foretold in neon lights (‘Wilde is coming’) and then portrayed, offered intriguing counterpoint to Jochanaan’s foretelling of another leader (and, if you like, divine manipulator) — and was once more acted and danced in a mesmerising fashion perhaps more readily associated with Salome herself by Christian Natter. And is not the Christ of whom this John the Baptist speaks his and his alone, a product of the imagination and repressed desires of a religious fanatic, incarcerated within — visible, throughout—a phallic cistern. Was not Christianity always thus: recall Nietzsche’s ‘there was only one Christian and he died on the Cross’. Other religions are, true enough to the opera, treated no more favourably. Their claims, voiced exclusively by men, seem no more plausible and, perhaps more to the point, no more relevant to the story unfolding and to human flourishing beyond that particular story, than a horoscope. Strauss’s failure to conjure up music of more than empty ‘gravity’ for references to Christ tell their own story. Who manipulates whom, and to what end?

Salome looks elsewhere, to those who might actually know her: first, yes, to Jochanaan, but ultimately, more productively, to Wilde — and thus to art, to a game that is aesthetic as much as it is sado-masochistic. The two can hardly be distinguished, and why would one try? Weimar-expressionist cabaret beckons from Wildean decadence; Wilde learns from Strauss and Salome too, ultimately adopting a leather harness in her/his/their service. Such blurring of pronouns may be read in various ways — and probably should. In art, perhaps, the mightier the plagiarism, the mightier the achievement. When Jochanaan and the eunuch Wilde seem partially liberated by adopting the corset and bustle that had once constricted the now queerer, pant-suited Princess Salome, who manipulates whom? And yet, gender as play, as game, remains a deadly one. Salome dies; Salome is killed. Patriarchy — an imperialist, orientalist patriarchy at that—wins to fight another day, to slay another woman, another queer voice and body too. Does it not always? And yet, her smashing of one—only one, yet nevertheless one — of  the Jochanaan busts, an aesthetic representation with which Wilde has incited her, remains: as powerful a moment onstage as that of her murder at the command of a tyrant-abuser.

Herod’s upholding of patriarchal norms, decadent, hypocritical subversion of them notwithstanding, was expertly conveyed in a wheedling, beyond-Mime performance from Vincent Wolfsteiner. Marina Prudenskaya’s Herodias, haughty, contemptuous, impressively controlled in her channelling of sex and gender alike, proved the perfect foil — or, better, manipulator. Thomas J. Mayer likewise offered, in post-Wagnerian marriage of word, tone, and gesture, a Jochanaan for this production, no hint — costume aside — of the ready-to-wear. Peter Sonn proved a worthy successor to Nikolai Schukoff as Narraboth. At times heart-breakingly beautiful of tone, his longing was as aesthetically exquisite as it was therefore doomed. All smaller roles were very well taken indeed, yet also formed part of a greater whole. If I single out Adam Kutny’s First Nazarene and Annika Schlicht’s Page as having made the greatest impression, that is doubtless little more than a highly merited personal reaction.

Conducting the outstanding Staatskapelle Berlin, then as now, was Thomas Guggeis. Then he made headlines by standing in at short notice for Christoph von Dohnányi. Now the field was his own and it sounded as much. From this bubbling, post-Wagnerian cauldron, anything might spill, unless someone could tame it; the battle was vividly, meaningfully rare, rather than effortlessly aestheticised after, say, Karajan. This was not a tone-poem with words; or was it? Unleashing the fabled darkness of this orchestra’s tone to ends in keeping with and in relationship to the vision on stage, yet in no sense constricted by them, Guggeis showed, as in his recent Katya Kabanova here, a keen ear for harmony, line, and orchestral musicodramatic eloquence. Crucially, he commanded the authority to have them speak in the theatre, in the dramatic here-and-now. This is not Elektra; it is not so single-minded, so monomaniacal. There are sideways glances; aesthetic contemplation shading into sexual frustration, if rarely fulfilment; hints at alternative futures; and so on. Such were rendered dramatically — often vividly — immanent, without throwing us from Strauss and Wilde’s central trail. Or so it seemed, for in the absence of any greater metaphysical authority, how could we know? Aesthetically the answer seemed clear, yet how could it not? Who, then, had manipulated whom?

Mark Berry

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