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Staatsoper Unter den Linden

In Review Berlin Salome hdl 618
Christian Natter as “Oscar Wilde” and Ausrine Stundyte as Salome in Berlin
© Monika Rittershaus

OUT WITH THE OLD, in with the new. That seems to be the guiding principle during Deutsche Staatsoper’s first season back in its historic home on Unter den Linden since 2010. So far, the biggest casualty of this approach has been Harry Kupfer. With the company’s March premiere of Salome, the last of the veteran’s classic stagings for the Staatsoper kicked the proverbial bucket. The director tasked with refreshing this work was another German Regie legend, Hans Neuenfels (a mere six years younger than the eighty-two-year-old Kupfer), whose witty and elegant Ariadne auf Naxos from 2014 was revived here earlier this season. 

The Staatsoper’s most recent Strauss premieres have been imports—Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra and Claus Guth’s Frau ohne Schatten—so a brand-new Salome,custom-made for this company, seemed like a cause for celebration. The Neuenfels Salome (seen March 8),however, was oddly detached—sleek and mannered, with a surfeit of symbolism and intellectualizing. The semi-abstract production seemed intended to undercut the work’s orchestral sumptuousness and emotional rawness. Its point of departure seemed to be the homoerotic yearnings of Oscar Wilde, as encapsulated in Salome’s rapturous, passionate longing for Jochanaan. The use of the word “encapsulated” is meant literally here, as the prophet spent most of the production enclosed in a dildo-shaped rocket. Neuenfels also had a silent extra stand-in for Wilde (that is, if one is to believe the program booklet, since there was absolutely no physical resemblance between the bearded actor Christian Natter and the Irish playwright), observing and directing the events as they unfolded onstage. Natter danced an extremely dull dance of the seven veils, wearing a glittery skull mask. At one point, he stabbed Salome in the heart with the stem of a carnation, unnecessarily reminding us of Jochanaan’s rejection and foreshadowing the heroine’s death. 

Luckily for Neuenfels and his team, the musical and vocal standards at this premiere were so high that the production’s inadequacies barely registered. (This may not be the case with revivals in future seasons.) The evening belonged to Latvian soprano Ausrine Stundyte, in her sensational role debut as the Judean princess. Stundyte, seen in Berlin weeks earlier in Die Gezeichneten at the Komische Oper, gave a full-blooded, searing performance, replete with musical and psychological nuance. From her first note to her last, Stundyte’s Salome was an electric coil of raw energy, shockingly brought to life with a richly textured voice that sounded comfortable in every register. And while she tore through the shattering role with breathless urgency and fury, every phrase seemed deliberate and well considered. In the midst of such wild vocal bravura, softer moments, such as her nearly spoken “Du hättest mich geliebt,” were shot through with tragic nobility. 

The Staatsoper surrounded her with a worthy supporting cast, including the flustered Herodes of Gerhard Siegel, the cartoonish and shrill Herodias of Marina Prudenskaya and the fierce Jochanaan of Thomas J. Mayer. Special praise goes to Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff’s jittery Narraboth, whose nervous ardor opened the evening on a suitably unsettling note. 

Zubin Mehta, who was to lead these performances, withdrew due to illness several months in advance. His replacement, Christoph von Dohnányi, quit the production shortly before the premiere, reportedly due to artistic differences with Neuenfels. Conducting duties then fell to Thomas Guggeis, Daniel Barenboim’s twenty-four-year-old assistant. It’s difficult to say how much of the Staatskapelle’s lush, expansive sound came from Dohnányi’s preparations with the orchestra and how much was Guggeis’s choice. In any event, the wunderkind led an unexpectedly grand, elegant reading that sounded positively opulent in the Lindenoper’s spruced up auditorium.  —A. J. Goldmann 

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