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Richard Strauss: Salome
06 Apr 2009

Nadja Michael as Salome and Tosca

Like Violetta Urmana, Nadja Michael had a substantial career as a mezzo before deciding to venture into soprano territory.

Richard Strauss: Salome

Salome - Nadja Michael; Jochanaan - Falk Struckmann; Herodes - Peter Bronder; Herodias - Iris Vermillion; Narraboth - Matthias Klink. Milan La Scala Orchestra. Daniel Harding, conductor. Luc Bondy, stage director.


$29.99  Click to buy

Urmana carries herself with a poise that recalls old-time diva self-possession, and her gorgeous instrument bears a similar glamour. Michael, however, possesses a vocal instrument as slender it its own way as she herself is - lithe, even muscular, but essentially smaller in scale. Two recent DVDs of Michael in iconic roles for soprano - Tosca and Salome - reveal an artist made to be seen as well as heard - a skilled singer, an attractive woman, but most of all, a riveting stage presence.

Staged at the 2007 Bregenz Festival on its famous lake-side stage, millions world-wide have now seen at least parts of this Tosca production, as it was featured (in a confusingly edited action sequence) in the recent James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. It turns out to be a fairly spectacular visual staging itself, even without Daniel Craig hopping around, capping people. As a line in the booklet essay forthrightly admits, “Philip Himmelmann’s production had to allow for the enormous dimensions of the” Bregenz stage. The gigantic eye that dominates the stage backdrop, essay writer Gerhard Perché suggests, represents an interpretation of Sardou’s melodrama that sees Scarpia as big brother. Maybe, but the eye, which overlooks the action but of course cannot intercede, might just as easily represent the deity that Scarpia claims to worship and to whom Tosca prays in vain (and Cavaradossi declares non-belief in).

Phoenix801.gifAt any rate, traditionalists won’t care for any aspect of the staging. Dress is contemporary, with Michael as Tosca so sexy in her red power suit in act one and more contemporary gown for act two. Gidon Saks sports formal wear, and then removes much of it for what is most likely the first strip tease staged during the Te deum. Only Zoran Todorovic spends the opera in fairly dull clothes, even bespattered with his own blood (a stunt double takes a stunning inert dive into the waters in the last moments). Although the physical production looks like no other Tosca throughout acts one and two, most of the stage action remains fairly true to the libretto; for example, Angelotti hides away in a nook/”chapel” where later Scarpia finds a fan and empty lunch basket.

Act three, however, finds Mario imprisoned in the pupil of the eye, a precarious position requiring a visible tether. When Tosca appears, she perches high above him, standing on some ledge behind the top of the “eye” backdrop. Surely director Himmelmann designed this for the audience at Bregenz, where it might have made an impact, reinforcing the delusion of the reunited couple’s hopes for freedom. But cameras and editing dilute any such intended effect. Similarly, the jolt of seeing dozens of other imprisoned victims of Scarpia rejoicing at the news of his death only partially compensates for the distraction from the opera’s proper climax, Tosca’s leap (a filmed sequence projected onto the pupil).

Nadja Michael and Gidon Saks make any quibbles irrelevant. Neither is vocally perfect: Michael can be shrieky in her top range, and Saks sounds hoarse for quite a while. The greater part of their singing does well by Puccini’s score, and their performances do even better by the libretto’s characters. Michael’s Tosca is passionate, flamboyant yet unneurotic, and very physical - one more reason why the third act staging could have been rethought. And though Saks doesn’t bring much that’s new to Scarpia, the modern dress helps to give a fresh spin to his portrayal of the voraciously sexual sadist. Todorovic, as with many another Cavaradossi, manages an affecting third act aria, but otherwise his coarse, rough tone will win few admirers.

Ulf Schirmer gets a powerhouse performance from the Wiener Symphoniker (as opposed to the more famous Philharmonic). Sound and picture are first class. Be advised, however, that the singers all wear unobtrusive but visible mikes, almost in earpiece form, as necessitated by the Bregenz acoustic.

A few months earlier Michael had been in Milan at La Scala for a Luc Bondy staging of Strauss’s Salome, with Falk Struckmann as Jochanaan. Conductor Daniel Harding goes for a hard-edged, tense reading, ignoring Strauss’s arguably disingenuous proclamation that his score should be treated as if it were by Mendelssohn. The result may not be subtle, but it is often exciting, which helps, since Bondy’s monochrome set and purposeless updating don’t produce much of that quality.

A huge crack runs through the foundation of an outer area of the palace, and Jochanaan has been tucked away somewhere in its depths. Plantation shutters form one wall, and on the other side, a stadium-width passage leads to the interior of the palace. Occasionally TV director Emanuele Garofalo films the action from behind the plantation shutters, presumably for a “voyeur” effect, but merely interrupting whatever dramatic flow is in progress.

Susanne Raschig’s costumes neither seem to be biblical nor clearly of one particular epoch, though some look vaguely late 19th century, such as those of the soldiers. Why she clothed Peter Bronder as Herodes in silky cargo pants and tunic never became clear to your reviewer. Bronder, shorter by a good foot than his imperious Herodias (Iris Vermillion), camps it up like the comic relief in an operetta, diluting the dark undercurrents of the story (whose surface is dark enough, agreed). Despite the fine work of the supporting cast, especially Matthias Klink’s painfully deluded Narraboth, the first hour of this Salome drags itself along clumsily. Only with Michael’s dance do sparks of life appear, though mostly due to her efforts; the choreography offers nothing new. Michael manages to make Salome’s contempt for her step-father clear while still projecting the raw sexuality the twisted man desires to see. Vocally, she seems to have saved just the right amount of power in reserve for the long final scene, and it is better singing overall than she manages as Tosca. The wiry nature of her instrument proves deceptive as it fills out nicely for the climaxes. After making some fitful attempts at innovation and reinterpretation, Bondy strangely goes for the “crushed between the shields” for Salome’s exit, final evidence that no cohesive thought lies behind the production.

Neither of these DVDs is likely to earn general approval, but for your reviewer, from start to finish the Tosca at least held his interest, on which the Salome had a weaker grasp. They both serve, however, as strong evidence that Nadja Michael is one of the more interesting sopranos working today.

Chris Mullins

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