Prom 58 – Richard Strauss’s Salome with Nina Stemme, Doris Soffel, Samuel Youn & Burkhard Ulrich; Donald Runnicles conducts the Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin

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 [semi-staged performance; sung in German with an English translation provided in the programme]

Herod – Burkhard Ulrich
Herodias – Doris Soffel
Salome – Nina Stemme
Jokanaan – Samuel Youn
Narraboth – Thomas Blondelle
Herodias’s Page – Ronnita Miller
First Jew – Paul Kaufmann
Second Jew – Gideon Poppe
Third Jew – Jörg Schörner
Fourth Jew – Clemens Bieber
Fifth Jew – Andrew Harris
First Narazene – Noel Bouley
Second Nazarene – Carlton Ford
First Soldier – Marko Mimica
Second Soldier – Tobias Kehrer
Cappadocian – Seth Carico

Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin
Donald Runnicles

Justin Way – Stage Director

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 August, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Donald Runnicles conducts Deutsche Oper Berlin in Salome at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThis Proms weekend sees the ultimate Richard Strauss ‘double-whammy’ with Salome and Elektra given on consecutive nights (not by the same artists!): in the unlikely event of these operas being given elsewhere as a double-bill, the definitive marking of the composer’s 150th-anniversary.

Odd, perhaps, that Salome should only now have been heard complete at these concerts, as the opera enjoyed a sensational while controversial success right from its premiere in 1905. Today its theatrical excesses are hardly likely to incite objection in an era given to a more shallow sensationalism, any more than its musical excesses might be thought provocative in an age conspicuously lacking in artistic ambition. All the more reason to focus on those intrinsic qualities of a work that is ideally suited to the expanses of the Royal Albert Hall.

Doris Soffel as Herodias and Nina Stemme as Salome in Salome at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThis account by Deutsche Opera Berlin amply confirmed Salome’s undimmed all-round impact. In part this was due to the admirable casting of the numerous smaller roles as dominate the opening scenes, so enabling the opera to build stealthily as its various musical and dramatic components fell into place. Thomas Blondelle was yearningly sympathetic as Narraboth, his unrequited love kept well within bounds so as to make his impulsive suicide the more unexpected, with Ronnita Miller touchingly supportive as Herodias’s Page and Seth Carico an unusually thoughtful Cappadocian. The pairs of Nazarenes and Soldiers were both finely differentiated as to register (all too often overlooked in performances and recordings), with the assemblage of Jews as good as it gets in conveying their combined witlessness as they argue over biblical precedent during an unlikely but dramatically necessary interlude prior to the onset of the climactic stages: Strauss here indulging his open dismissiveness of organised religion in what was to remain one of his most dryly amusing theatrical passages.

That said, Salome stands or falls by the strength (-in depth) of its four main roles. Of these, Burkhard Ulrich’s Herod was the most unorthodox in its relative lightness of tone – which, along with a tendency to suaveness rather than sarcasm, endowed this part with an unusual yet not inapposite subtlety: his imploring of Salome not to have her way revealing a figure whose hedonism barely concealed his innate helplessness. Not least in the face of Herodias, in which Doris Soffel (the classiest of ‘stand-ins’, for Ildikó Komlósi) made an irresistible impression with her imperious manner allied to an amoral cunning which all too fully explained Jokanaan’s revulsion towards her. Save for one timely failing, Samuel Youn brought real eloquence to this latter role – with his moral virtuousness never getting in the way of a deeper humanity.

Burkhard Ulrich as Herod in Salome at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThus to the title role – of which Nina Stemme is currently among the leading exponents, as this performance made plain. Not the least impressive aspect was the deftness by which she stole into proceedings, as a bored and wilful adolescent who rapidly appreciates the hold she has over others as well as how to exploit that supremacy to her advantage. Thus her dominance, both dramatically and musically, proceeded by degree – preparing the way for a ‘Closing Scene’ over which she held sway not so much by force of presence as by a charisma as mesmeric yet repellent as Strauss could have intended. Added to this was her absolute command of a tessitura that blended ideally with the orchestral texture, making for as powerful and uplifting (however unwillingly so!) a portrayal as one could hope to hear.

Justin Way’s expert and unobtrusive stage direction kept events moving, without detracting from the orchestra’s centrality to this opera across its (here) 112-minute course. Less familiar in London than other of its Berlin counterparts, the Orchestra of Deutsche Oper is demonstrably second to none among exponents of Strauss in its capturing of the subtlest expressive nuance as completely as that of the most seismic outburst. It helped to have Donald Runnicles at the helm: over a decade after his memorable Proms account of Elektra, he was no less admirable in its predecessor – setting a swift pace for the initial scenes, before building tension resourcefully so that the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ was as bewitching an interlude as the final pages were visceral in their effect when Salome meets her violent though inevitable demise.

There has been debate whether Strauss’s anniversary was best represented by hearings of his three most famous operas. Having Salome and Elektra on successive evenings was a master-stroke of programming, with this performance of the former settling matters once and for all.

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