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Richard Strauss: Salome
29 Aug 2010

David McVicar’s Salome

This high-concept Salome takes place in Nazi Germany.The set has two levels: on top, Herod revels with the banqueters; below, we see a dingy basement, full of kitchen workers, relaxed soldiers, and the prostitutes who help them relax.

Richard Strauss: Salome

Salome: Nadja Michael; Herodias: Michaela Schuster; Herod: Thomas Moser; Narraboth: Joseph Kaiser; Jokanaan: Michael Volle. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Philippe Jordan, conductor. David McVicar, stage director. Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 3, 6, and 8 March, 2008.

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To the left is a large manhole cover, under which Jochanaan fulminates; to the right is a spiral staircase, lit by a harsh moon.

It is easy to see why the director, David McVicar, would be attracted to this rehistoricizing. Suddenly the little ghost-waltz that accompanies Salome near her entrance (“Ich will nicht hineingehn”) becomes something like diegetic music; the extreme cruelty of much of the action becomes institutionalized as state policy; and we may recall, with a slight shiver, that Strauss’s only recordings as a opera conductor are of fragments from two 1942 performances of Salome. On the other hand, the opera’s treatment of the disputatious Jews is unsympathetic, and the Nietzschean Strauss said that he regarded Jochanaan in particular as a clown; so McVicar skirts a dangerous area of interpretation, in which the Jews of the Third Reich might seem to deserve what they get. Possibly McVicar tried to avoid this by playing down the comedy of the disputation-fugue: the Jews look at one another like mildly peeved intellectuals.

Wilde regarded Salome and John the Baptist as occult twins, and even contemplated a sequel in which Salome, still alive after being crushed by the soldiers’ shields, put on a hair-shirt and started to preach the gospel of Jesus in the wilderness; eventually she would make her way to France and fall through the frozen Rhône—the ice would refreeze leaving only her head visible. Nadja Michael’s Salome is hectoring, brutal, unseductive—she is a sexual being only through sadism. She doesn’t cajole Narraboth into opening the cistern: she browbeats him, and even pushes him to the floor when he capitulates. Michael raves powerfully throughout the opera, and sings powerfully too, though she doesn’t always hit the correct notes, and there’s a distracting warble in her voice, almost the warble of 1940s pop singers.

Michael Volle’s Jochanaan is everything you could want: shirtless, dressed in a long drab Jewish coat with a phallic belt-dangle, he is a potent lunatic, uncontrolled in his gestures as he reels across the stage, but superbly controlled in his voice. When he sings of Herodias’ lovers—the young Egyptians in their delicate linen and hyacinth stones and golden shields and gigantic bodies—he writhes on the floor, as if he were caught up in some sexual trance at the thought of these beautiful young foreigners. This is how the production emphasizes the way in which Jochanaan and Salome are doubles: they are both obsessive-compulsives, obsessive-convulsives, mad with lust.

The unhappy aspect of this production is the Herod of Thomas Moser. Moser can make a handsome sound, but he’s a somewhat listless presence, loud but bland. Philippe Jordan, the brilliant conductor, makes the opera move like the wind (as all Strauss opera, particularly the schmaltzy ones, should move) except when Moser sings: then momentum is lost, perhaps owing to Moser’s flaccid, rhythmically inexact phrasing. His one impressive scene is a silent one, during Salome’s dance, here staged as a black-out scene in which Herod and Salome play together with a Salome-shaped doll, a dress-maker’s dummy, a large dressing-mirror, and a long rack of dresses—it’s a lovely conceit, as Salome enters Herod’s fantasy-world of fetishes and idols, deflections of sexuality onto dead images. Wilde’s Salome was never anything much more than an image in a mirror: “She is like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver,” Narraboth says, and in her dance she dances her way right into the glass that she, in some sense, never left.

Daniel Albright


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