Friday, February 5, 2016


James Karas

When the curtain went down at the end of the performance of Salome at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, soprano Allison Oakes who sang the title role stepped out for a bow. She was greeted with a widespread chorus of boos.

The gentleman who was sitting beside me leaned forward and put his head between his hands. The applause of the audience became polite and even enthusiastic when the performers took their bows and they applauded Oakes positively if not enthusiastically. My neighbor (unknown to me) refused to lift a finger of approval and I finally asked him how he would rate the production on a scale of 1 to 10. He expressed a fervent wish that he had missed it completely.

Scene from Salome at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo: © 2016, Monika Rittershaus
I found it riveting.

If you want to be negative, Claus Guth’s production can be described as unorthodox, confusing, taking liberties with the libretto and creating a Salome like you have never seen before. All of that is true and the result is an outstanding and brilliant interpretation of the opera.

Salome is based on Oscar Wilde’s play in which Salome, Herod’s step-daughter and niece is sexually attracted to Herod’s prisoner, John the Baptist (called Jochanaan in the opera). Herod is married to Herodias who is Salome’s mother and the former wife of his brother. He is sexually attracted to Salome to the point where he considers replacing her mother with Salome as the queen. No wonder the Baptist is fulminating about the cesspool of sin that this family represents.

All of it is very dramatic with some wild music by Strauss. It is a one-act opera that lasts for about one hour and forty five minutes (no intermission) and keeps you on the edge of your seat.  

Guth turns the character of Salome and the opera inside out. There are seven Salomes representing her from childhood into adulthood. Only one of them sings but her younger versions are very much around and they participate in Salome’s famous dance.

Most of the minor characters are in effect robots. They move mechanically like robots and in fact there are a couple of mannequins on stage.

The Baptist is the wild, fulminating prophet in the opening scene. He lies on a pile of clothes (at first I thought they were corpses), almost naked. He is brought out of the dungeon at Salome’s insistence and he joins a party thrown by Herod. Herod seems to own an upscale men’s clothing store. The men are dressed in dapper suits and when the Baptist joins them, several Salomes dress him up in a three-piece suit identical to the one worn by Herod. His hair is combed the same way and Herod and the Baptist become identical.     

                                  Scene from Salome at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo: © 2016, Monika Rittershaus
John is decapitated but not in the way we are used to seeing. I will not give more details about that and spoil the possibility that you will see the production or a recording of it. To delve into all the possible psychological issues of Salome in her relationship with her stepfather and John would require a lengthy essay and not just a review.

German baritone Michael Volle with his powerful and expressive voice sang the key role of the Baptist. German tenor Burkhard Ulrich sang Herod, the businessman with the illicit lust for his niece/stepdaughter who is willing to give up half his “kingdom” for a dance. Soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet took the role of Herodias, dressed in black she looks like a woman who scored a rich husband and enjoys her position of wealth and power.

The singing was quite exceptional with a minor note. Catherine Naglestad was scheduled to sing the title role but she was replaced at the last minute by Allison Oakes. She has a superb voice but there was an issue of the orchestra almost drowning her out on occasion. This may be simply a lack of time to adjust the balance between stage and pit and it should not detract from an outstanding performance.

The Deutsche Oper Orchestra was conducted by Alain Altinoglu and it delivered Strauss’s score in all its intricacies with heroic assurance.

In short, this is a Salome that is profoundly original, perhaps disturbing to some but in the end it represents opera at its intellectually most exciting.

Salome by Richard Strauss opened on January 24 and will be performed on February 6, April 2 and 6 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bismarckstrasse 35, Berlin.

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