Sunday, May 27, 2012

Salome at Carnegie Hall

(photo courtesy of the Stamford Advocate)

The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, Music Director and Conductor
Nina Stemme, Soprano (Salome)
Eric Owens, Bass-Baritone (Jochanaan)
Rudolf Schasching, Tenor (Herod)
Jane Henschel, Mezzo-Soprano (Herodias)
Garrett Sorenson, Tenor (Narraboth)

Last Thursday the Cleveland Orchestra presented Richard Strauss's Salome in concert at Carnegie Hall. The opera, which ends with Salome kissing the decapitated, bloody head of the prophet Jochanaan, has to be among the grisliest ever written. According to the program notes, after the opera's first appearance in New York at the turn of the century,  a citizens' protest against the "moral stench" of this "loathsome, abhorrent" work closed the Metropolitan Opera production after one performance.

I thought that listening to this opera in concert would be a good way to experience the music in a visceral manner and sidestep the camp of most stagings. Under Welser-Möst, the orchestra played admirably but seemed to gloss over the restless dissonances of Strauss's score. During the first half I thought I was listening to chamber music. I could also barely hear the singers including Owens, who was stupendous as Alberich in the Met's Ring cycle, though his voice gained clarity as the evening progressed. Owens seemed to view Jochanaan as a coolly erudite seer, condemning but decidedly above being enraged by the queen's immorality. His repudiation of Salome's advances likewise seemed grounded in ethics rather than disgust.

Henschel was regal but obviously unhinged as Heroidas. Henschel played Herod as a cad who just happened to be the king: lusting after the title character then later denouncing her for being too high maintenance.

Stemme turned out to be a riveting Salome, especially after the Dance of the Seven Veils when she silences Herod's offers of riches by demanding the execution of Jochanaan. During her final, wrathful monologue with the severed head, Stemme fully expressed her character's psychosis. It was a privilege to listen to her and I hope that she makes more frequent appearances in New York. She is, after all, considered to be the reigning dramatic soprano in the Strauss and Wagner repertoire.

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