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In Review > Concerts and Recitals

Salome

NEW YORK CITY
Franz Welser-Möst & The Cleveland Orchestra | Carnegie Hall
5/24/12

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Stemme, Owens and the rest of the Salome cast, onstage at Carnegie with Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra
© Chris Lee 2012
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Stemme and Schasching, Salome and Herodes at Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee 2012

Salome will turn 107 years old this year, but its audacity still registers unabated. In the thrilling concert performance that the Cleveland Orchestra brought to Carnegie Hall on May 24, with Franz Welser-Möst leading a cast headed by Nina Stemme, Strauss's operatic tone poem seemed as strange and shocking as ever. 

The great orchestra was front and center, quite literally. In an unusual and not entirely satisfying arrangement, the instrumentalists reached the lip of the concert platform, while the singers performed on risers in the rear. The deployment would have spelled doom if the playing had been coarser or the voices less heroic in scale. At times — especially during Stemme's impassioned reading of the final scene — one wished the singers could come forward to form a more visceral bond with the audience. But Welser-Möst drew carefully weighted orchestral textures that let the singing emerge intelligibly. And even if their perch was disadvantageous, all of the principals had the vocal heft needed to surmount Strauss's mammoth orchestral forces.

All eyes were on Stemme, widely regarded as the world's leading hochdramatischer soprano but rarely heard in New York; her only Met credits to date are Senta (2000) and Strauss's Ariadne (2010), although she is scheduled to return to the company for Isolde and Elektra. The Swedish soprano may not have been exactly Strauss's "sixteen-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde"; her warm, womanly tone allowed her to fill the second part of the equation better than the first. Her voice had few of the silvery highlights that some of her celebrated predecessors (Welitsch, Rysanek, Mattila) have used to conjure the Judaean princess's extreme youth. But Stemme compensated with a musical and dramatic alertness that let her form a portrayal that was fully convincing on its own terms.

This Salome wasn't a monster — she wasn't aiming to be evil — but an innocently amoral young woman answering to nothing but her own impulses. At the moment when she first conceived her lethal bargain with Herodes, the smile that lit up her face arose not from vixenish calculation but from sheer girlish delight. Her repeated demands for Jochanaan's head kept gaining in power, made all the more impressive by the complete absence of impurity or stridency: if the timbre itself wasn't that of a teenager, the firm tone suggested youthful freshness. The opening phrase of the famous apostrophe was overwhelming in its impact, not only because of the amount of sound that Stemme poured out but because of her broad, large-scale phrasing, sized to convey the horrifying dimensions of Salome's murderous obsession.

The performance had a similarly grand-scaled performer in Eric Owens's Jochanaan. His dark bass-baritone poured out unstintingly and implacably, as if the prophet's conviction of his own divine inspiration were propelling the very sounds he made. The masterful Herodes was Austrian tenor Rudolf Schasching, a singer new to me. Although his voice had the necessary acrid overtones, he brought an unusual lyric quality to the role, singing through phrases that are most often shouted. No matter how repellent this ruler might have appeared to the world, in his own mind he was a sentimental swain. 

The slicing intensity of Jane Henschel's voice let her create a Herodias seemingly possessed with demonic spite. As Narraboth, Garrett Sorenson deployed a tenor that had the requisite penetrating power yet retained a core of sweetness that conveyed the doomed young soldier's romantic ardor. The Page is a small role, but Jennifer Johnson Cano's steady, mellow tone turned it into a grounding element amid the surrounding hysteria. 

Salome is a succession of orchestral treasures, here wonderfully realized by the Clevelanders. The beauty of the playing let us hear many details anew. Dissonant passages that can often sound like so much vivid cacophony — the quintet of the Jews, the bizarre polytonal trio for Herodes, Herodias and the offstage voice of Jochanaan — came across as music. Welser-Möst conducted the piece as if tracking its singing line, refusing to prod the music or aim for surface effect. The first scene was unusually slow, as if depicting the effects of the hot desert air. The work moved inexorably from there, like a serpent uncoiling before making its venomous strike. The opera became a single cohesive statement, its terrifying climax the inevitable result of all that had come before. 

I would venture that few in the audience were encountering Salome for the first time. But the sterling presentation gave us all a chance to marvel at its undiminished power. spacer 

FRED COHN

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