Staatsoper Hamburg – Richard Strauss’s Salome conducted by Kent Nagano

Richard Strauss
Salome – music drama in one act to a libretto by Hedwig Lachmann based on the 1891 French play Salomé by Oscar Wilde [sung in German with German and English surtitles]

Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Judea – John Daszak
Herodias – Violeta Urmana
Salome – Asmik Grigorian
Jokanaan (John the Baptist) – Kyle Ketelsen
Narraboth – Oleksiy Palchykov
Herodias’s Page – Jana Kurucová
First Jew – James Kryshak
Second Jew – Florian Panzieri
Third Jew – Daniel Kluge
Fourth Jew – Andrew Dickinson
Fifth Jew – Hubert Kowalczyk
First Nazarene – Alexander Roslavets
Second Nazarene – Nicholas Mogg
First Soldier – David Minseok Kang
Second Soldier – Kark Huml

Orchestra of Hamburg State Opera
Kent Nagano

Dmitri Tcherniakov – Director & Set Designer
Elena Zaytseva – Costume Designer
Gleb Filshtinsky – Lighting

Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 29 October, 2023
Venue: Staatsoper Hamburg, Hamburg

One of the toughest of nuts for any theatre director to crack is this. How do you make a necrophiliac nymphet sympathetic to your audience? How do you ensure that after a seedbed of depravity culminating in the presentation of a human head on a silver platter, feelings of total revulsion are not a lasting impression? That is the measure of any modern-day interpretation of Richard Strauss’s music drama (he deliberately chose not to call it an opera, following the example of Wagner) Salome.

That too was the task facing Dmitri Tcherniakov in his new production of Salome at Hamburg State Opera. He is on the record as being strongly influenced by the fin-de-siècle background to Oscar Wilde’s piece and by key figures in the emerging school of psychoanalysis such as Sigmund Freud, seeing both in his earlier Elektra production (which he previously directed for Hamburg State Opera) and Salome – two prime examples of family dramas.

The curtain rises to reveal a typical salon of the period; long casement windows at one end look out onto a city street. Dominating the centre of the stage, around which all the action revolves, is a long dining-table, covered with a wine-red tablecloth and all the paraphernalia of a banquet. The spread is in Herod’s honour, for his birthday is being celebrated. Grey and white walls, with one side given over to niches in which lie several ornamental heads (how obvious is that?), produce a chilly ambience, compounded by a setting which utilises only half the elevation behind the curtain. This creates a sense of intimacy but also reinforces the claustrophobia, since all the leading and supporting characters are forced to occupy a relatively small floor area.

Doubts about the unity of the setting and discrepancies in detailing begin to emerge at this point. The salon takes us back more than a century, yet the very modern chandeliers and Perspex dining chairs suggest a different era. The guests are attired in costumes of the period, though Herod could easily have come from the cast of The Mikado, dressed as he is in a pink, floral-patterned suit. There are two glaring exceptions. First Jokanaan, who has gate-crashed the party and sits at one end of the table with his back to the audience, wearing jeans, sweater, and a sports jacket, fingering the pages of his red-backed book of holy scripture. Who is he, the other guests want to know, pointing at the intruder. Second Salome herself, who enters looking like a street urchin, dressed in a black T-shirt, orange shift and trendy trainers, making use of a white puffer jacket and various other costume changes as the action proceeds.

Tcherniakov dodges the two principal mainstays of most traditional productions. There is no Dance of the Seven Veils (which Strauss composed after he had completed the initial score). Instead, this Salome moves around the stage and on the dining-table in a variety of poses; she lets Herod retrieve her from a niche into which she has crawled stripped to her underwear; he in turn slings her over his shoulder, after which he strokes her body, pulls on her long stockings, and dresses her in a new costume. It is clear by this stage that she has become his sexual plaything and his victim, since Tcherniakov in his stage direction repeatedly alludes to the fact that she has been abused by him. She has grown up in a household in which violence and political murder are the weapons of power: that is the lesson she has learned for herself. The absence of the dance itself and replacement by the titillation aroused by displaying and caressing parts of the female body nonetheless represent a powerful emotional statement.

There is no beheading. Jokanaan remains quietly in his seat, even during those eerie moments when repeated and pinched double-bass notes mimic the execution. He then struggles violently with Salome as she tries to kiss him, casting her aside and walking off stage carrying his little red book of prophetic statements. No spilling of blood, no ghoulish mask or head made of papier-mâché. It’s all in your mind, Salome.

There are recurring episodes of grim coquetry and high drama. Salome is all too aware of her own sexuality and openly flirts with Narraboth, stripping him of his tie as she pulls him across the table. His death in turn never happens on stage: he simply exits the proceedings. When Salome first registers the presence of Jokanaan, he calmly lights a cigar and puffs at her in disdain. In one of her teenage temper tantrums, after she has failed to persuade Jokanaan to let her kiss him, Salome takes several porcelain bowls containing the table flower decorations and smashes them against the walls, hurling one of the chairs over the head of Jokanaan for good measure. She then rips off the tablecloth and the remaining accoutrements of the banquet. Violence breeds violence. I must confess I felt very unsettled during the sequence when the Five Jews argue amongst themselves at the dinner-table to see Herod fire paper aeroplanes at them in an attempt to stop their quarrelling. In current times that was very near the bone, though the production team let it be known in the programme-book that they reject any insinuation of antisemitism that might be drawn from the libretto. When Salome reiterates her desire to be given the head of Jokanaan, and Herod initially resists her increasingly strident demands, she seizes a knife from the table and threatens him with it as he advances towards her. In a further allusion to domestic violence, Herod humiliates his wife by tearing off her bling-studded diadem and smashing the baubles, only to suggest moments later when he places it on the head of Salome that she can have half his kingdom and be his “beautiful queen”. This is all the very opposite of happy families and the nightmare of all dinner-parties.

The big heroine of the evening was Salome herself. Asmik Grigorian was in quite splendid voice. The role itself requires a huge range, stretching from brilliant high Bs to a dusky G below middle C. There were no weaknesses in her assumption of the part: she had all the power to ride moments of dense orchestration, floating angelic tones as she sang of Jokanaan’s body “being like ivory”; later, on experiencing rejection, she used the full amplitude of her chest register to spit out her conviction that “He is terrible”; still later she added a dramatic chill to her voice as she reiterated to Herod, “Give me the head of Jokanaan”. Her range of vocal colour throughout was extraordinary, the words pouring from her like streams of molten lava, her anguish carried aloft as if by soaring eagles when she reached the point of maximum resistance from Herod. What also stood out for me in her characterisation was her hyper-activity. Initially playing Salome as a listless spoilt brat, she kept constantly on the move, seizing objects of interest from the table, her gaze rapidly moving from one dinner-guest to the next. Then, as her obsession with Jokanaan took hold, there was a steely determination in everything she did. But there was also a key moment when her own childhood trauma surfaced once more, as she opened two boxes Herod placed before her and lovingly discovered the dresses she had grown out of as well as her former dolls and other toy playthings. 

Violeta Urmana was a powerful Herodias, doubly spurned, both by her errant husband whose “mole eyes beneath their blinking lids” were focused almost entirely on his stepdaughter, and also by her own child, with whom there is not a single vocal exchange in the score. She too was a woman wronged; her loneliness on stage was palpable. John Daszak brought vocal stamina to the role of Herod, never masking his brutish dominance of the proceedings, yet introducing a whining tone into his flirtatious exchanges with Salome. I liked the light and lyrical tenor voice of Oleksiy Palchykov as Narraboth, displaying his own sexual attractiveness to both Salome and the Page.

And what of the great prophet himself, Jokanaan? In this role Kyle Ketelsen had one clear advantage. His voice never needed to climb up from subterranean depths and chill the marrows of an audience from a cistern below. Indeed, he was constantly closer to them than any of the other characters and always present on stage, so vocal projection needed no extra assistance. His warm baritone sometimes minimised the sheer force of his prophetic statements, though his anger and obsessiveness about his rightful cause were never in doubt. 

In the pit, Nagano and his players served a complex score well. Strauss deploys a huge orchestra, one of the largest for any operatic work. Nagano took care never to cover his singers, even in some of the searing climaxes; in passages for orchestra alone he achieved a remarkable depth and richness of sound, yet frequently allowed the diaphanous, chamber-like quality of the score to emerge. But the night belonged to Grigorian, clearly one of the most impressive Salomes of our time.

Further performances: 1, 4, 8, 12, 15 November

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