Wiener Staatsoper, The Insanity of All: Richard Strauss' "Salome"

I remember reading Fred Plotkin's book Opera 101 some time ago. The book listed ten operas that would theoretically take a viewer from an easy, very accessible opera that they would (hopefully) like no matter what (Rigoletto was his suggestion). The operas became increasingly less accessible until, at the end, were Wagner operas. Except these were not quite the end. The last of the ten was contained in a chapter called "Psychological Opera: Elektra," or something along those lines. While Elektra is obviously a different Strauss opera than Salome, I found here the elements that might make this opera inaccesible to some, and definitely one to reserve for only the most prepared audience members. I admit this is my first time seeing Salome, but I must say that I was struck, I think particularly by this production, by how it is not just Salome, but essentially all the major characters, who are fraught with psychological problems.

Synopsis & General Information (the general information is actually kind of interesting for this opera):


|Richard Strauss
  • Peter Schneider | Dirigent
  • Boleslaw Barlog | Regie
  • Jürgen Rose | Bühnenbild und Kostüme
  • Wolfgang Schmidt | Herodes
  • Janina Baechle | Herodias
  • Camilla Nylund | Salome
  • Markus Marquardt | Jochanaan
  • Herbert Lippert | Narraboth
  • Juliette Mars | Page
  • Herwig Pecoraro | 1. Jude
  • Peter Jelosits | 2. Jude
  • Carlos Osuna | 3. Jude
  • Benedikt Kobel | 4. Jude
  • Walter Fink | 5. Jude
  • Sorin Coliban | 1. Nazarener
  • Hans Peter Kammerer | 2. Nazarener
  • Marcus Pelz | 1. Soldat
  • Dan Paul Dumitrescu | 2. Soldat
  • Johannes Gisser | Ein Cappadocier
  • Gerhard Reiterer | Ein Sklave

  • Before I go any further, I want to point out two things. The first is the fact that the music written here by Strauss is tremendously and fascinatingly complex. In this review, however, I won't focus much on the complexly interwoven themes, dramatic concepts like sets of threes, or leitmotifs. The Wikipedia link above can lay out much of this information, and these dramatic mechanisms, along with the fact that Strauss himself adapted Oscar Wilde's work to create the libretto, are fascinating. The second thing I would like to point out is that there are many, many characters in this opera, most of whom are really quite  unimportant. I usually try to do justice to these characters, as well, but here, it simply will not be possible.

  • The set design for this particular production of Salome was static, taking place just in a sort of stone arena. The stage right side ascended up the steps into a palace or temple where Herodes and Herodias are making merry for the beginning portion of the opera. In the center is the grate for the prison of Jochanaan, and a terrace around the back provides some elevation interest and a terrace for the guards. Upstage center was a door through which guards and Jochanaan could come and go. This simplicity in the set kept the focus on the singing and the acting, making sure the audience was riveted by the dramatic music and the mental instability of the characters.

  • The first mentally unstable chap to look at is Narraboth. Herbert Lippert's voice was lighter than one might expect for a Strauss singer, but the role is written that way. He is the "romantic lead" of the show, if  one perversely wishes to call him that. The relationship in weight is reminiscent of how Fenton is a decidedly light lyric voice in an opera filled with heavy lyric or spinto Verdi voices. This fundamentally lyric voice fell very sweetly on our ears as we listen to Narraboth entreat Salome for her love. The thing that is most striking about this is that it is so normal feeling. Narraboth feels like just about every other spurned lover we might encounter in a romance. Often in opera, however, these characters either get the girl in the end, or they do something terrible, but not until the end. However, it was the particularly sweet quality of Lippert's voice that made the sudden suicide of Narraboth even more shocking. A man, seemingly in his prime, was so fixated on Salome that after three rejections, essentially all at the same time, he stabs himself in the neck. This demonstrates that under the façade of normalcy there is something seriously sick about the relationship and power relationship between Narraboth and Salome.

  • Markus Marquardt's heavy baritone voice and superb acting supported a stunning portrayal of Jochanaan. Because of the rich consistency of his tone and his relatively static stage action, his overwhelming zealousness radiated. His rejections of Salome were not just firm, they were emphatic and almost rough. His intense forward stare, as though preaching to the audience, made him seem a man focused fatalistically on his connection and service to God. The important point of this performance was that how Marquardt's rejection of Salome, and indeed, his relationship to just about everything except God, almost didn't seem real to him. The psychological tribulation of Marquardt's Jochanaan is his obsession with God to the exception of all else, including the implications of rejecting the madwoman Salome, which ultimately cost him his life.

  • In the role of Herodias, I found Janina Baechle's motherly voice belied her manipulation of her daughter as a weapon against both Jochanaan and Herodes' domineering personality. It's true that Herodias does try to protect her daughter from having to dance for Herodes', recognizing that there's something perverse about Herodes' desire for his stepdaughter. Nonetheless, once Salome has already danced and demands Jochanaan's head, Herodias' only interests is in convincing her husband that because Jochanaan said nasty things about her, she appreciates, and Herodes' should also appreciate, that Salome did right. This complete lack of motherly instincts was made all the more haunting by Baechle's warm, velvet voice that seems, on the surface, so compassionate.

  • Herodes' psychological aberrance is most present in his lust for his stepdaughter. Now, it is true, of course, that a stepdaughter is not related by blood and a man might well be attracted to her. This doesn't remove the fact that it is his wife's daughter, a woman probably half his age, for whom he lusts. The age difference might have been less of an issue in biblical times, but there's still something disturbing here from the outset. Wolfgang Schmidt's repertoire consists largely of roles such as Jochanaan, in operas with huge orchestras that require very loud singing. Unfortunately, it sounded in his performance of Herodes that his voice is falling apart, requiring him to use a tone that barks and shouts. I don't have a large problem with it in this instance, because it fits the role, but I question whether the voice is in good health, and in a role that calls for sweet legatos, I would be skeptical of Schmidt's abilities. That said, as an overbearing, bigoted man expressing his sexual desires for his stepdaughter, Herodes' character was actually well supported by Schmidt's voice and style. Also, importantly, he was able to pull off the dramatic moment at the tail end of the opera when he yells for his soldiers to kill Salome. Here, while the voice was still pushed to its maximum, he did sustain a long passage, bringing home how horrified he is at what he has witnessed his stepdaughter do. Because Schmidt was so emphatic at that point, he brought into focus the fact that, for whatever his sexual misdeeds, Herodes' (and to an extent Herodias, as well) truly disgusting psychological deformity is his murdering Jochanaan at the behest of Salome and looking on as she defiles his severed head.
Note that I question if these photos
are of Nylund, but they give an idea
of the production
I had the opportunity to see Camilla Nylund in the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos about a month ago. In that role, I felt she was frequently covered, or at least equalled by the orchestra. The voice also felt a bit shrill and I wasn't entirely convinced by her characterization. Here, in the role of Salome, however, she was mind blowing. There was not a moment where I could not hear Ms. Nylund (there were times when the orchestra was rivaling her for first position, but with a ~111 piece orchestra, that's simply a fact of life, and it frankly only added to the drama). Her voice was always full, robust, and ringing. While Salome is supposed to be young, she must possess the kind of commanding presence that the psychologically disturbed often have. Her performance of the role as a whole also built to a crescendo. While I'm sure that part of this was due to vocal considerations, saving herself for the climactic final scene, it worked well dramatically also. Nylund's acting was also superb. I found it very poignant that she would act small and unassuming when paying her compliments to Jochanaan and then suddenly become formidable as she scolded him for his rejections. Seeing her curled up on the edge of the set when she wasn't in the foreground also gave us a sense of her disturbed mind. Her Dance of the Seven Veils was, admittedly, perhaps the most thrilling rendition. While it seems completely fair to have a reasonably simple dance so as to not have to switch in a dancer for a woman who otherwise plays the role admirably, the dance was a hair too artistic to exude quite enough sexuality. 
That said, it did give the intriguing sense that perhaps Salome only goes through the motions of the dance so she can get what she wants from Herodes. Also, I find it disappointing whenever the performance is done without the performer actually ending up naked. I say this not because I have any particular desire to see Camilla Nylund naked, but because it seems to me that to perform the role of Salome, that is simply one of the requirements. It is only a short period (especially with the way that she was almost immediately covered here with a robe to hide her body and the body stocking), and it is what the drama calls for.  Finally, in the final scene, Nylund became fierce, manipulating Herodes against his promise. She became almost frantic with anticipation while waiting once Herodes finally acquiesced. Lastly, as she squirmed around on the ground with the head of Jochanaan on a silver platter, there was no question just how disturbed she was. As with the blackout in La traviata, I didn't quite like the way the circle of soldiers was highlighted as they executed Salome (I would have preferred they just raised she shields rather than miming bringing them down on her body), there was no question why they were doing so. Nylund, and Strauss' incredible music (including the "Salome Chord" and the build up to it), sickened us, bringing home just how depraved the topic of the entire opera really is. I was left wondering, can we really be surprised how Salome turned out, surrounded as she was by so many mentally unstable people?