OPERA - RICHARD STRAUSS - SALOME
By Richard Strauss
5 August 2003, p. 75.
established his name as an opera composer in 1905 with Salome, an extended one-act piece built on the play that Oscar Wilde
had contrived in 1892. That text was already a tone poem, deliciously
malignant and mischievously depraved. Banned in Britain, Wilde’s Salome
was embraced by Europe’s Symbolists, who welcomed its offer of
languidness as decadence, punctuated by violence as aphrodisiac.
Strauss was less
certain of his own voice, tracking Wagner’s symphonic music-dramas and
envying Mahler’s operatic symphonies. He descried his Salome as
Mendelssohn-like, and its theme of homicidal craving has been
interpreted as feline, its grotesqueries wrapped in gossamer. Strauss
kept his other side – as the spinner of vacuity and bombast – under
control, reserving brute force in Salome
for the fatal climaxes. The weak spots are Viennese sentimentality. He
had, after all, just composed his Domestic
Opera Australia has
presented an interpretation which tips passion towards the raucous. The
effect is compelling, each element contributing to a musical and
theatrical feast which should silence quibbles but cannot escape
criticism about its conception.
The title role in Salome
is another of the impossible asks on the opera stage, calling for a
probably virginal teenager with the vocal accomplishments of an Isolde.
Lisa Gasteen attains the latter with such ease that the dramatic
imbalances from woman as child are marginalised. The doubt that lingers
is whether her vocal strength left too little space for sweetness in her
attempt to seduce John the Baptist? Do her evocations of his beauty come
across as accusations? In braking through the orchestra at its peak,
Gasteen soared beyond girlishness even before her character’s
immaturity had turned manic. She conveyed that moment with the vocal
discipline and purity that makes us hunger for her Brunnhilde at the
Ring in Adelaide late in 2004.
Herod is the pivot of
the moral and the plot. His lusts make the story possible and he alone
has the power to execute Salome’s desire. Richard Greager’s pinging
tenor conveyed these obsessions and authority. However, his costume
slipped towards the clownish. If he were such a buffoon, he would not
need to keep his oath and so could let Jokanann live.
To the role of
Jokanaan, Daniel Sumegi brought the vigour of a baritone and the
resonance of a bass. He transcended the woodenness in the part to take
charge of the one scene when he is let on stage. Only someone with his
vocal heft could have been heard from the bottomless pit to which the
director has condemned him. Only the surtitles made it possible to
discern the threats that he hurled from that abyss.
The singing throughout
was consistently appealing, with the several secondo roles secure and al
the brief interpolations well covered. The theological squabble among
the five Jews achieved the high humour of a Rossini ensemble in its
cross-wired patter. Barry Ryan’s tenor established the quality that
distinguished the evening. Against this high standard, Donna-Maree
Dunlop was memorable for her performance of the page as a puppet-like
creature with a doom-laden timbre. So fine is the singing that
Bernadette Cullen as Herodias did not stand out as much as her vibrant mezzo
entitled her to do.
The orchestra under
Sebastian Weigle was full throttle for too much of the time. Despite
this intensity, the playing lost little of the clarity that Strauss
In his return to Opera
Australia, Antony Ernst has sustained an intelligence and coherence that
makes this production several times more insightful than the Kirov
version at the 2001 Melbourne Festival. If the Electra at the 2000
Sydney Festival was too restrained, this Salome is too much a shocker.
Contrasts of pallidness with potency were more evident in Steve
Wickham’s lighting. The costume designs by Gabriella Tylesova drove
the staging towards Grand Guignol rather than a domestic melodrama gone berserk. Salome
looked more tart than nymphette.
The Dance of the Seven
Veils, choreographed by Michael Campbell, conveyed all of Strauss’s
fascination with faux
Orientalism. Campbell achieved far more than merely getting over the
improbably of the opera’s not being over until the fat lady dances. By
incorporating Herod into the movements of erotic dancers, Campbell
realised that fantasy allows us to experience what our bodies deny us.