Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst at Carnegie Hall – Richard Strauss’s Salome with Nina Stemme

Salome – Opera in one act to a libretto by the composer based on Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of the French play Salomé by Oscar Wilde [concert performance; sung in German with English surtitles]

Herod – Rudolf Schasching
Herodias – Jane Henschel
Salome – Nina Stemme
Jochanaan (John the Baptist) – Eric Owens
Narraboth – Garrett Sorenson
The Page of Herodias / A Slave – Jennifer Johnson Cano
First Jew – Rodell Rosel
Second Jew – Matthew Plenk
Third Jew – Bryan Griffin
Fourth Jew – James Kryshak
Fifth Jew / A man from Cappadocia – Darren Stokes
First Soldier / First Nazarene – Evan Boyer
Second Soldier – Sam Handley
Second Nazarene – Brian Keith Johnson

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 24 May, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Franz Welser-Möst. Photograph: Harald SchneiderFor the second of their two New York concerts, the Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst presented Richard Strauss’s Salome. To improve the balance between singers and orchestra, platforms had been erected on both sides of the stage, with the principals on the left, and the eight men taking on the minor roles on the right, all of whom left very favorable impressions.

The singers could be clearly seen and, for the most part, clearly heard. Only Eric Owens as Jochanaan had trouble projecting over Strauss’s thick scoring – especially so when singing from offstage in the passages when Jochanaan is heard from the bottom of a cistern. Although a highly expressive artist, his warm voice lacks some of the focus needed to make it roar through the orchestral tides.

Conversely Nina Stemme soared over the most-lush scoring, although she had to call on all of her vocal powers, since she was getting little help from Welser-Möst’s unwillingness to rein in his forces at critical moments. The scene in which she sings about wanting to kiss Jochanaan’s mouth, the writing getting higher and higher, was simply glorious, and her voice never turned shrill.

The opening of the opera had featured the ringing tenor of Garrett Sorenson as Narraboth, the powerful mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano as the page of Herodias, and Salome’s interaction with Jochanaan, but it was not until Herod appeared that the performance took on an added dramatic dimension. In fine voice, Rudolf Schasching brought the Tetrarch to life in all his lechery and megalomania. He even emphasized the comic aspect of the opera, without resorting to vocal and dramatic caricatures. From then on, the whole performance became much more theatrical, further inspired by Jane Henschel’s portrayal of Herodias, showing that even a shrew can make her displeasure known with beautiful sounds. Salome as well became more expressive in her body language, Stemme making her eminently believable as a spoiled, scheming teenager.

The only area where one wished for more character was the orchestra, most obviously in ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. There was real beauty in the playing, a warm and rich string sound, fine wind and brass contributions, but it lacked any sense of sensuality and atmosphere. In the rest of the opera as well, Welser-Möst did not show enough flexibility within the bar, inflections which would have added depth of expression; the overall drama could have been etched in more-incisive relief, except for the spectacular section following Jochanaan’s curse.

Although in a concert performance the conductor would naturally be concerned with not covering up the singers, Welser-Möst could easily have extended the dynamic range downward, to quieter pianos and pianissimos, which this wonderful orchestra can do so spectacularly. In the end it was the singers who carried the day.

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