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31 Aug 2014

Nina Stemme's stunning Strauss Salome, BBC Proms London

The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings

Richard Strauss : Salome,,BBC Prom 47, Royal Albert Hall, London 30th August 2014. A review by Robert Hugill


For Salome, Donald Runnicles conducted the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, with Nina Stemme as Salome, Burkhard Ulrich as Herod, Doris Soffel as Herodias, Samuel Youn as Jokanaan, Thomas Blondelle as Narraboth and Ronnita Miller as Herodias's page. The concert staging was directed by Justin Way,

Prior to the performance, I rather wondered why this particular opera and these performers. Salome is certainly not rare in London and the David McVicar production at Covent Garden gets regular outings. Nina Stemme has recently sung Salome in Stockholm and Zurich, but the opera does not seem to appear in the current roster of Deutsche Oper productions. We did not seem to be being given a glimpse of an existing production. This seemed confirmed when the singers varied from being completely off the book, to standing resolutely behind music stands. There was a performing area in front of the orchestra, but only Nina Stemme's Salome and Doris Soffel's Herodias took real advantage of this. But all doubts were swept away by the performance, this was simply one of the finest performances of Salome that I have heard in a long time.

The problem with Salome (written in 1905), is that though premiered barely a century ago it dates from an era of different performing styles. Dramatic sopranos had voices which were more lithe, more narrow in focus. Orchestras were generally quieter, with narrower bore brass and gut strings, and the orchestral sound a lot less dense. Production values were more forgiving, Audiences didn't generally worry about whether the heroine looked 16. But early sopranos in the role would probably sound a lot younger, to our ears. Nowadays, both singers and directors frequently move the character into maturity. One of the few singers that I have heard who seemed able to capture the bright freshness and youth of Salome was Montserrat Caballé..

The remarkable thing about Nina Stemme's account of the title role was the wonderful brightness and freshness that she brought to the vocal line. Singing with a lovely, fluid sense of line, this was a singer who really did link this music to the Strauss of the songs and the later operas. There wasn't a screamed note the whole evening, and she seemed to be able to encompass the whole role whilst preserving focus and flexibility. As Brünnhilde, Stemme does not have a huge voice compared to some of the Brünnhildes of the past, but this is an advantage as Salome.

She both looked and sounded young. From the moments of her first entry (throughout she was off the book, and fully acted), it was clear that this was a petulant, selfish teenager. Salome's naivety and inexperience came out in Stemme's voice and her body language. It was wonderful to see and hear the way petulance gave way to desire and more; the typical teenager reaction of becoming obsessed with something you are not allowed to have. Salome is a huge role and once on stage she is rarely off, and the concluding section focusses exclusively on her. More so here, as the stage was cleared and we were left with just Stemme (Burkhard Ulrich's Herod and Doris Soffel's Herodias sang from high up near one of the auditorium exits). And she was completely mesmerising, and seemingly tireless. It was wonderful to be able to see and hear a great artist in such a complete musico-dramatic performance without the interference of any sort of konzept or over fussy stage business. After all, it is all in the music.

Stemme's partner in the enterprise was of course Donald Runnicles, who directed his orchestra with poise, sensitivity and control. Yes, there was the odd moment of poor balance, but in the main the orchestral sound was transparent enough for the singers to rise above it despite the fact that rather than being in a pit, the 104 players were ranged on the platform behind the singers. The orchestra became another of the stars of the show as for the first time, I was able to appreciate some of the details of Strauss's orchestration. Runnicles led a fluid and fluent performance. Yes there were over 100 players, and yes there were loud moments, but by and large it was the flexibility and sheen which came over. The whole of the performance was suffused with the glow which Strauss achieves in this opera, the strange eerie light of the moon which is apparent from the opening. There were far too many lovely details to recount; one stands out, the sound of the high stabs from the double basses as Salome waits for the head of Jokanaan. The Dance of the Seven Veils was really a dance, with Runnicles bringing out the waltz element of Strauss's melodies.

In a concert performance, it is fatally easy for the singers playing Herodias and Herod to dominate the show, but here they simply complemented the intense dramatic performance from Stemme. Doris Soffel had stood in as Herodias at the last minute, but you would not have known it. Off the book, she looked gloriously queenly and prowled around the stage like a panther caged. This was a fully sung account of the role, not just barked, and perhaps occasionally she veered towards dramatic caricature, but overall this was a strong and musical performance. Herodias has some great one-liners and put-downs (it really is a gift of a role), and Soffel showed that she understood how to make these work musically and dramatically.

Soffel was nicely paired with the Herod of Burkhard Ulrich. He started off firmly behind his music stand, but soon relaxed and gave us a highly vivid, extremely neurotic Herod. Ulrich does not have the largest of voices, and for the Royal Albert Hall he sounded half a size too small, but he compensated by his vividly coloured performance. However, he did occasionally push the role a little too far towards sprechstimme for my taste.

Samuel Youn made a virile and resonant Jokanaan, singing his glorious phrases with great beauty and a lovely full line. Jokanaan's music must be some of the most beautiful that Strauss ever wrote for a hero in his operas. For the performance Youn had to shuttle between the organ loft and the stage, and perhaps this extra activity got to him because his voice protested at one point. Youn recovered with aplomb, and continued singing in a finely phrased manner.

Thomas Blondelle made a virile Narraboth, his voice sounding a little high tension under pressure and thus giving the character a neurotic edge. Blondelle remained immured behind his music stand, but did react well to other performers giving a fully rounded performance. In this he was supported by the Page of Ronita Miller, who impressed with her poise in this small but important role.

The supporting characters were all very strong, the Jews were Paul Kaufmann, Gideon Poppe, Jorg Schorner, Clemens Bieber and Andrew Harris, the Nazarenes were Noel Bouley and Carlton Ford, the Cappadocian was Seth Carico and the Soldiers were Marko Mimica and Tobias Kehrer.

This was as complete a dramatic performance as you could wish for, and certainly a performance of Salome for the memory box. Nina Stemme achieved a remarkable intensity and sustained beauty in the title role, complemented by some superb orchestral playing from Runnicles and the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin.

Robert Hugill

Richard Strauss: Salome
Burkhard Ulrich: Herod, Doris Soffel: Herodias, Nina Stemme: Salome, Samuel Youn: Jokanaan, Thomas Blondelle: Narraboth, Ronnita Miller: Herodias's Page, Paul Kaufmann: 1st Jew, Gideon Poppe: 2nd Jew, Jörg Schörner: 3rd Jew, Clemens Bieber: 4th Jew, Andrew Harris: 5th Jew, Noel Bouley: 1st Narazene, Carlton Ford: 2nd Nazarene, Marko Mimica: 1st Soldier, Tobias Kehrer: 2nd Soldier, Seth Carico: Cappadocian
Deutsche Oper Berlin
Donald Runnicles: Conductor
Justin Way: Stage Director
Saturday 30 August 2014, BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London

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