Opera on stage
John Allison reports from Barcelona
Richard Strauss’s famously optimistic ideal for his operatic Salome was ‘a 16-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde’. Wagnerian heft is certainly a quality required of sopranos in this gigantic role, and physical suppleness another, but such singers scarcely exist—one reason why we have become so used to singing actresses struggling through the part. It is a cause for celebration when someone with almost all the right credentials comes along, as Nina Stemme has just done at the Gran Teatre del Liceu.
The 40-something Swedish soprano may not literally match Strauss’s description, but she looked good and cut a coolly Nordic figure in Guy Joosten’s new Barcelona staging. She certainly sang like the Isolde she is, and projected her first Salome with sumptuous power and radiance that few if any have achieved since Hildegard Behrens in her prime. Coquettish and determined, Stemme also supplied vocal delicacy when the conductor Michael Boder, who stressed the score’s modernity, was not unleashing the full orchestral armoury. At the June 28 matinee, Boder tightened the screws excitingly for the last 20 minutes, making this a very intense performance.
The other special musical achievement was Robert Brubaker’s clarion-toned Herod, a part often left to character tenors or those at career twilight. He became a Karl Lagerfeld lookalike in Joosten’s production, which filled the bullet-pocked concrete bunker of the designer Martin Zehetgruber with gun-toting heavies. On Calixto Bieito’s home turf, Joosten must have felt the need to go for broke, yet he was less gratuitous than his colleague might have been. Though there was nothing subtle here—instead of quietly committing suicide, Narraboth was shot with his own gun by Salome—the production had a grisly and fascinating logic. In place of the traditional Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome screened a film of her younger self being molested by Herod. Another surprise was the
reappearance of Jokanaan (the vocally unremarkable Mark Delavan) at the end. Was he a ghost of the head on the platter, or is it all in Salome’s mind?
If some of that suggests a similar aesthetic to David McVicar’s recent Covent Garden staging, this was neater and more focused in every respect. Each of the characters along the Last Supper-like table—including the Jews and clergymen Nazarenes, who got into a food fight—was shown in detail, and all were presided over by Jane Henschel’s vivid (and guzzling) Herodias.
(c) JOHN ALLISON