The Freedom of Possibilities: Angela Denoke and Salome [The Royal Opera’s Salome, 3-16 July 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the German soprano who favours roles of psychological depth…

Angela Denoke. Photograph: Johannes Ifkovits

Taking the title role in Covent Garden’s first revival of Salome in the powerful staging by David McVicar is Angela Denoke making her third appearance on the house. She may be new to this production but this is a role that has a central position in her repertoire. She has played Salome in Vienna, in Berlin and in Munich and dramatic roles of this kind have s special attraction for her. The drive and intensity that this repertoire calls for might lead one to assume that Angela would have brought resolve and determination to the shaping of her career. But when we meet at Covent Garden her comments suggest that surprise and luck have marked every step of the way – although it hardly needs to be said that in the sphere of international opera luck comes only to those with real talent.

Born near Hamburg, Angela would grow up to attend that city’s Hochschule but the early interest she took in music did not reflect the family background. “I was the exception. There was indeed a love of music in our family, but my parents were not much interested in classical music and I’m the only professional musician in the family. However, it was my father who when I was still very, very young brought a piano into the house. It was an old instrument which he had acquired somewhere and I started to play around with it – I must have been about four years old but, observing what I was doing, my parents decided that I should have piano lessons. An old lady became my first teacher and I developed so quickly that I played Mozart sonatas and performed in a concert with other pupils of hers at the age of six.

“The voice came into it only after my first piano teacher encouraged me at the age of twelve to move on to study with somebody else. This teacher had the idea that I should play and sing simultaneously, blending voice parts in the piano with a separate vocal line. It was that exercise that made him realise that I could sing quite well, so he not only gave me singing lessons but suggested that I should sing in a church choir. That way I began to sing all the time – but it was for fun and not with any idea of wanting to become a singer. I was interested in art and literature too and, by spending one afternoon every week at his house, I learnt quite a lot about music and about life also. At that stage we talked together about the possibility of my taking up school work and becoming a music teacher. That led on to studies in Hamburg which included singing lessons and my interest in that side of things started to grow. Consequently my teacher encouraged me to give it a try.”

Angela Denoke as Salome (Royal Opera, 2010). Photograph: Clive Barda

Angela’s CV indicates that she took to the stage in Ulm and thereafter in Stuttgart which might suggest that a clear decision about her future had been taken by then. However, that’s not the way that she tells it: “I never thought about a career but, having studied the voice for two years, I thought that I ought to try out at auditions and that was what took me to Ulm where they hired me: that was very interesting and a total surprise. I didn’t expect it at all.” From this you might suppose that the audition was a modest one for the chorus or for a small supporting role, but no. Angela was hired for four years and, after appearing as Ninetta in Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges, she was in the second cast of Lehár’s The Merry Widow after which her first year at Ulm found her as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro and as Alice in Verdi’s Falstaff. “It went on like that, but, although I had taken a role while in school in Hamburg, I never expected to work so quickly as a professional.” It was the same story when she was invited to appear in Stuttgart (“I went there for an audition, but I didn’t expect anything”). From that period one production stands out for her and, indeed, there is a DVD available of the Stuttgart presentation of Die Walküre in which she appears as Sieglinde. “Walküre was very important for me because initially I had doubted if it would suit me and only after another singer cancelled did I decide to give it a chance after all. Yet that became a significant part for me because it somehow changed my repertoire.”

From then on it was one success after another. An agent who had come to Innsbruck to hear somebody else saw Angela there in Die Freischütz and immediately took an interest. Through him she got to Hamburg for a production and a recording of Berg’s Wozzeck (she had already appeared elsewhere as Marie) and she quickly won other engagements in Strasbourg and Salzburg. “It was one surprise after another”, she insists, although she laughs lightly as she goes on to say “I think I was in good shape then – everything came up within two or three months, several auditions which all led to my being hired.” Confirming her attitude, Angela adds this: “In Ulm and Stuttgart I had colleagues who very much wanted to have a career but, as for myself, I just thought ‘if it happens, it happens’. I’ve always been happy wherever I’ve been rather than feeling the need to move on and I think that was a kind of strength.”

If you study Angela’s CV you find a marked emphasis on late-19th and 20th-century repertoire although she did appear in Fidelio. “I’ve always enjoyed playing on-stage and the roles in which I have to some extent specialised are very colourful which makes it an adventure every time as I create them anew. I just did my tenth production of Wozzeck and each one was different. There was always a new way to see Marie, and I like that because the acting side is very important to me. Also these parts seem to fit my voice.” Asked if any particular singer inspired her, Angela indicates that various artists have had a strong appeal for her at various times but readily acknowledges that one name does stand out even so, the late Hildegard Behrens. “She is very important to me and I sense that her feeling for her roles has something akin to my own. I always like to hear what she does with a piece, and, while to hear her Salome is to find something different from others, I must say that I like it very much. I became aware of her quite early on so she was significant in my life and much later I met her through my husband and I liked her a lot. I was so happy to meet her because it was a really good meeting.”

Roberto Saccà as Alexey & Angela Denoke as Paulina (The Gambler, Royal Opera, 2010). Photograph: Clive Barda

Within the period of music on which Angela tends to concentrate, there is some emphasis on German works but not exclusively so. “It’s Czech and Russian repertoire too,” she says – and, indeed, here recent triumph at La Scala was in Janáček’s The Makropulos Case and she has appeared too in his Kátya Kabanová while Russian works include Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Prokofiev’s The Gambler in which she appeared at Covent Garden last February – that followed her debut there in 2006 in Schoenberg’s Erwartung. “The only thing that’s left out is the Italian repertoire, but that doesn’t mean that I’m against it. For a long time I wanted to sing Desdemona and every soprano wants to sing Tosca, but these roles may not be for me and, if so, that’s okay. It’s good as it is with these beautiful stage roles that I sing and in the concert hall too where my repertoire is similar. I’ve done excerpts from Wozzeck and performed Erwartung in concert. Other works that I do include Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder and Strauss’s Four Last Songs.”

This reference to Strauss brings us on to more detailed comments on Salome and on David McVicar’s production for which the conductor is Hartmut Haenchen (“I’ve worked with him before – many years ago we did Capriccio together in Amsterdam and I appeared in Parsifal when he was conducting. I have a really good feeling about him, not least for what he brings to Salome”). Although it’s the case that the whole of Salome is shorter than the first Act of Götterdämmerung, the intensity called for by both composers invites a comparison. “To my mind Wagner is much easier than Salome and that’s because however different Salome is from, say, Arabella or Der Rosenkavalier, the one thing that links them is that Strauss always creates long, long lines without giving time for you to breathe. Wagner, however, ensures that you do have the time to take a breath before having to sing the next phrase. But the fact that Salome goes through without an interval is helpful – certainly from an actor’s point of view, but for singing too it has its advantages. I don’t really like long breaks as happens when you are singing the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier: there you sing the whole first Act but then have something like two hours off before you have to start again. On the other hand, it can be beneficial to have a break because then you can re-emerge refreshed bodily – it’s more a physical thing than a question of what helps the voice.”

Angela Denoke as Salome (Royal Opera, 2010). Photograph: Clive Barda

As regards Salome herself and how one conceives the role, it is hardly surprising that Angela should assert that “it’s the same for Salome as for Marie: you can always find new approaches.” For some audiences, their image of Salome is derived from the biblical story as the girl used by her mother Herodias to silence the reproaches of John the Baptist by demanding that the tetrarch Herod have him beheaded – this being possible because of Herod’s oath to grant Salome any wish she may make as a response to being enticed by her dancing (‘Dance of the Seven Veils’). Retaining the allure of this dance and underlining the glamour, Hollywood has offered us versions of Salome as incarnated in silent cinema by Nazimova and in the nineteen-fifties by Rita Hayworth, but Oscar Wilde, on whose play the opera’s libretto is based, presented a very different view. Here Salome herself propels the drama but her actions are those of a stubborn girl not only angry with her mother for taking Herod as her second husband but aware too that in this connection Herod’s brother had been plotted against and killed. She is thus fully accustomed to the decadence and brutality of life around her, but as a teenager is relatively powerless until she finds herself able to settle the fate of the prophet, a man whose criticisms of Herodias attract her but who himself remains outwardly impervious to the sensual appeal that others find in her.

It’s a situation and a character open to all kinds of interpretation. “I don’t have one particular view of her and even within the same production it can vary from one performance to another: one evening she’s more childish and another she shows the strength of a princess. It’s also how you feel on the day! But in this staging there’s more emphasis on that aspect of the story that concerns Herod and Salome, and the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ is taken as an opportunity to make it clear why she is the person that she is.” That is indeed the case for a kind of psychological flashback to replace the more usual erotic entertainment – the nudity of which Covent Garden patrons have been warned is not that of Salome. As for Salome’s interest in Jokanaan, as John the Baptist is called here, Angela stresses the complex depth of it: “First, it’s his voice that she hears: that’s why she wants to meet him, and then she’s fascinated by the fact that he is saying things against Herod and against her mother and also because Herod is afraid of him. She doesn’t understand what he is saying but nevertheless feels a connection to him. But in one sense Jokanaan and Salome are on the same level. He wants to be strong but I don’t think that he is. If he wasn’t interested in Salome he wouldn’t talk so much, he would speak out against her in a sentence and then leave her alone. Of course, he believes what he says, but I think that he hides himself behind his religious ideas and uses them as a kind of shield. Neither of them has any real relationship, no-one to lean on or connect with. But she’s fascinated by the way he uses language and I think that he brings out in her a creativity of language because what she describes is not the dirt-covered man in front of her but something else: she sees in him something which is from her own imagination but which nevertheless could be the inner Jokanaan.”

This is complex territory and audiences at Covent Garden may well vary in how they choose to interpret the titular character and in how they feel about her. So I ask Angela what she hopes for by way of a response. “I hope that they understand why Salome acts as she does and therefore feel at least some sympathy because that’s what should come with understanding.” As for the appeal of this opera and of this particular character for Angela, it can be summed up by the freedom she experiences when faced by the myriad possibilities inherent in the role. “I did Fidelio in two productions but didn’t feel that Leonore was a good part for me. I can sing it and I can make it work, but I still have the feeling that I’m kind of trapped in a role like that. With others that I sing such as Salome, I feel that I can create and that I can make it my own: that is what is interesting for me.”

  • Five performances at 8 p.m. from Saturday 3 July to Friday 16 July 2010
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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