Eros and Gospels
PENNISI was in Naples
for Richard Strauss' 'Salome'
Salome by Richard Strauss returned to Naples sixteen years after the last performance in the San Carlo Opera House. At the same venue in February 1908, the composer had conducted eleven performances of the first of his operas to be appreciated worldwide.
I was at the early evening performance at 6pm on 18 November 2014. This brand new production celebrates Strauss' one hundred and fifth birthday and also the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25 November).
Salome productions tend to fall between two stools: either decadent stage setting and acting — it seems that Strauss picked up the subject after admiring a Gustave Moreau painting — or in the Hollywood 1950s 'peplum' movie style — eg William Dieterle's 1953 film with Rita Hayworth as the protagonist with a curious happy ending, namely the conversion of the Princess to Christianity.
Fortunately, stage director Manfred Schweigkofler avoids both styles. He sets the plot in contemporary times, in the grand, gross and inelegant palace of a vicious and luxurious Middle East ruler. The stage set (by Nicola Rubertelli) consists of a few essential elements, with a huge mirror over the scene, reflecting oversize Chagall-style frescoes. Apart from giving the plot a universal modern flair, Schweigkofler follows St Mark and St Mathew's Gospels very closely — as well as some other biblical texts. As a result, Princess Salome is not a femme fatale or the culprit. She is the main victim of the corrupt environment, especially of her mother Herodias who made her own daughter a baby doll sex worker.
Salome is extremely young but already perverted. She declines the marriage offer by Syrian Prince Narraboth who, for this reason, commits suicide. She is attracted by the chaste John the Baptist (named Jochanaan in the opera). As he refuses her, she dances for the pleasure of the ruler, Herodes, and asks the prophet's head in payment. Under the eyes of all, she has an orgasm on the beheaded body. This is excessive even for the ruler, who condemns her to death.
In this production, even in the final scene, Salome keeps a childish, even if corrupt, look. Altogether, this is an intelligent production, faithful to the Scriptures and full of drama, also due to the quality of the main singers as actors.
But the real challenge of performing Salome is the music. Strauss indulged himself in a huge orchestra with quadruple woodwind, including a heckelphone — a rare instrument from the oboe family — while frequently reducing his forces to a chamber music scale. Fundamentally tonal, albeit with some atonal passages, Strauss administers some highly skilled and highly calculated shocks, such as (in Gabriel Fauré's words), cruel dissonances that defy any explanation. Seventy-seven-year-old conductor Gabriele Ferro, a specialist in this type of repertory, brings to the pit the slow decadent approach that Schweigkofler kicks off the stage. The blend works quite well due to the excellent performance of the San Carlo Theater Orchestra. Tempos are expanded and slowed to provide more emphasis to the crescendo in the overwhelming finale. The performance lasts some fifteen minutes longer than Zubin Mehta's, or Karl Bohm's reference recording.
In the vocal cast, the male group is of quite high standard — especially Kim Begley (Herodes), Markus Marquardt (Jochanaan) and Woo-Kyung Kim (Narraboth). In the title role, Annemarie Kremer has the physique du rôle and excels as an actress; she can also dance reasonably well. However, she is a coloratura lyric soprano in the process of making a transition to heavier parts, and has difficulties with Strauss' impervious dissonances. Natascha Petrinsky is a devilish and perverted Herodias.
The audience applauded warmly.