With no fewer than three productions by Sir David McVicar running in the Metropolitan Opera’s repertoire this January alone, one might think of travelling to escape the Scottish opera director. Yet he is so ubiquitous in the opera world today that his production of Richard Strauss’s quintessential expressionist opera has returned to London in the same gritty, gray tones to which New York audiences are wintering.
Salome has a storied history in London, and really everywhere else since the time of its premiere in 1905. In just one act, its perverse plot offers up lust, murder, incest, and necrophilia. The story dresses up the Biblical anecdote about a Judean princess who tempted her lascivious stepfather Herod into giving her the head of John the Baptist (Jokanaan in the opera and the Oscar Wilde play on which it is based) in return for the seductive Dance of the Seven Veils. After she passionately kisses it, the horrified Herod orders her murder to repeated percussive strains in Strauss’s score that suggest retributive rape. Strauss adapted the German translation of Wilde’s play as his libretto, but made carefully selected cuts to eliminate any suggestion of Salome’s innocence and to magnify her malevolence. The resulting opera proved so incendiary that after only one performance in 1907 the Metropolitan did not present it again for twenty-seven seasons. Britain’s theatrical censorship kept it off London’s operatic stage until 1910, when it was allowed to appear with limitations, and banned Wilde’s play until the 1930s.
McVicar’s production, which is featured in a video installation on the work in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s ambitious and contemporaneously running exhibition “Opera: Passion, Power, and Politics” (See “Exhibition note,” The New Criterion, February 2018) hearkens back to a decadent 1930s, the approximate time when both the play and the opera entered general acceptability. Jokanaan is kept in the subterranean chamber of a gray concrete basement illuminated by crude electric lights. Herod’s party of guests eat, drink, and argue around a table shadowboxed at the extreme upper reaches of the proscenium. They descend to watch Salome’s lustful antics and Jokanaan’s somber pronouncements as a kind of morbid après-dȋner entertainment. After the Dance of the Seven Veils, which in this production looks like a faux seduction followed by a sexual assault, Herod takes her off into a side room to have his brief (and perhaps unsatisfying) way with her. Salome echoes the original Wildean hints of purity in a white gown, which matches the cold, deathly surface of the moon to which she is compared. By the end of the opera, it becomes a blood-spattered mess after she rolls around kissing Jokanaan’s severed head. Perhaps only François Girard’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal, which returns to the Met this season, boasts more sanguinary effusion.
The title role falls in this revival to the Swedish soprano Malin Byström. She follows in a fine tradition of Swedish Salomes, including Birgit Nilsson and, though she has performed the role less often, Nina Stemme. Byström’s cool, Nordic tones serve the character’s amoral narcissism as well as anyone’s. She is strident without losing cohesion, pleading without sounding desperate, triumphant without melting into shrillness. Byström’s command of the range and its dissonant leaps is impressive and benefits from gleaming, rounded top notes. But it does not quite plum the purring depths of the part’s ominous lower range. When her Salome observes that the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death, the sepulchral low G on the second syllable in the word “Todes” (“Death”) remains elusive.
Strauss declared that Salome should be a sixteen-year-old girl with the voice of an Isolde. Byström came close, but the performance’s stock rose on a Jokanaan with the voice of a Wotan. Michael Volle has by this point in his career captured much of the late–German Romantic baritone repertoire—from Wotan and Hans Sachs to the lighter Strauss parts—and excelled in this challenging role. He adorned it with the usual solemnity, which Strauss did not really intend: the avowedly atheist composer thought of Jokanaan as a comic figure. But the sheer stentorian glory was riveting. John Daszak brought fresh insights to the role of the lecherous Herod, a part often foisted on declining Heldentenors. Here he was brash and insistent, and finally horrified, but deftly avoided clichéd sleaze. Michaela Schuster sang a sophisticated Herodias. Usually she is only there to pluck at Herod’s nerves and egg on her murderous daughter, but in the opera’s scarier moments Schuster indulged in enough pathos to radiate horror. She never quite touched on regret, if one could expect such a sentiment from the woman who gave birth to Salome, but her conflicted feelings were something to relish. The superb Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási, general music director of Berlin’s cutting-edge Komische Oper, led a searing performance that chilled one to the bones.