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Dutch National Opera

In Review Amsterdam Salome hdl 917
Nikitin and Byström in Amsterdam’s Salome
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

THE ALMOST COMPLETELY black, elliptical stage design by Jan Versweyveld, along with the chiefly gray and black costumes by An D’Huys, created a sober, monochrome look for Ivo van Hove’s new production of Salome at Dutch National Opera (seen June 9 and 21). Van Hove avoided any picturesque detail to focus completely on the motivations for the behavior of the characters. The director’s contemporary setting for the Old Testament drama created by Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss also avoided any reference to modern political situations. To van Hove, the meeting of different ethnic and political parties in Herodes’s palace provided political-religious background for an abstract family tragedy centered on a daughter incapable of normal social behavior. Living in a world where moral boundaries were lacking, and with a promiscuous mother and a perverted, decadent stepfather as her references, Salome came of age as an egocentric young woman who could not take no for an answer.

The lack of color in the designs provided maximum contrast with the horrific, utterly bloody closing scene. As this Salome was no teenager but a self-assured woman without respect for human norms, the closing scene developed from childish play into brutal necrophilia. Instead of embracing only Jochanaan’s head, Salome indulged her lust with the prophet’s entire body, drenched with blood and still convulsing. Swedish soprano Malin Byström—like Maria Cebotari, a great Salome of the 1940s—is a Mozart specialist, rather than a Wagnerian dramatic soprano of the Birgit Nilsson variety. Byström’s Salome was utterly convincing and entirely rewarding. On the first night, Byström’s delivery of the closing scene was already most impressive, but she spared her voice during earlier scenes. By the fourth performance, on June 21, Byström threw herself with marked intensity into the great scene with Jochanaan and built to a terrific climax during her confrontation with Herodes, culminating in a vocally overwhelming, dramatically terrifying final scene that brought the house down.

Van Hove staged the ensemble of Jews without the slightest suggestion of caricature; their music was sung perfectly by five first-class soloists—Dietmar Kerschbaum, Marcel Reijans, Mark Omvlee, Marcel Beekman and Alexander Vassiliev. The other outstanding principal artists were Doris Soffel, an icy Herodias, and Lance Ryan, who achieved a superb musical realization of Herodes’s overexcited dialogues. Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin, whose looks did not exactly match Salome’s description of Jochanaan, produced some sonorous singing from the pit, but he was not dramatically persuasive as the prophet whose words have to reach the hearts of the people.

In the pit, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra provided a luxurious and colorful tapestry of sound, filled with dramatic tension by the alert if occasionally broad conducting of Daniele Gatti.  —Paul Korenhof

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