Salome: Twilight of the vibratos

Staatsoper rep night: Salome. Ancient production? Check. Underrehearsed staging? Check. Uneven singing? Check. Welcome back to the opera house where everything can go pretty much right but Salome can still come out bland. Camilla Nylund is an alright Salome, but I’m sure she’s better in other roles. Peter Schneider isn’t the best Strauss conductor out there, but you could do far worse. Unfortunately, this is an opera that requires a frisson from some source or another.

Strauss, Salome. Wiener Staatsoper, 2/2/2011. Production by Boleslaw Barlog (revival), conducted by Peter Schneider with Camilla Nylund (Salome), Tomasz Konieczny (Jochanaan), Wolfgang Schmidt (Herod), Iris Vermillion (Herodias), Marian Talaba (Narraboth).

Boleslaw Barlog’s production takes its visual inspiration from Klimt, but on this 196th performance there wasn’t much glitter left on Jürgen Rose’s sets. Gold floors are vaguely spotted with colored tiles, and generically Middle Eastern robes with mosaic bits are the clothing of choice. The photos here make it look rather nicer than it does in person, from the Galerie standing section it was just a brownish platform with some spots. The worn quality is less one of appropriate decay than simple drabness, and often there’s not enough color contrast to see what’s going on. I’m not sure what its angle was, if it ever had one in the first place. Something about the exotic as self, I am sure, whatevs. Of the Personenregie, today it is a site of park and bark.

Mystery Salome and Herod (not my cast)

Peter Schneider conducted a spotty rendition of the score. The orchestra obviously can play this piece very well, but I’m not convinced they were playing well together, and some moments worked while others were flat and unfocused. The character was somewhat soupily Romantic with Rosenkavalier tendencies, but not differentiated enough to give a decisive impression. It wasn’t bad, in fact much of the playing was quite good, but it had little shape or edge. Like the staging, it lacked intensity.

Camilla Nylund is a lyric Salome and was pushing for volume at many points. I would classify her as a Singer with Skills, not a bad thing but not an exciting one. She can be depended on to have thought through the role, give it the best she’s got, show good musical taste, and rarely make ugly sounds, but she isn’t going to get to Demented (see also: Adrianne Pieczonka). Her silvery soprano doesn’t have a particularly memorable timbre, and can get vibrato-heavy and strident at the top. Her characterization was well-acted but longing and girlish, at times almost fairy Salome, and I missed darker undertones. She deserves credit for doing her own dance all by herself, but it seemed something of a space-filler. Her most memorable moment was a creepy Sprechstimme “den Kopf des Jochanaan.”

Tomasz Konieczny was a hale and hearty, even a clean John the Baptist. He sounded healthy as well, with a metallic, noble sound that suited the part far better than his downright reputable looks and ordinary presence. The rest of the cast failed to inspire, though Iris Vermillion’s wobbly camp goddess Herodias was entertainingly over the top (sporting a glittery dress that I think we can call a harem Dirndl). Wolfgang Schmidt, after a painfully voiceless Aegisth in Elektra at the Met last season, turned up again to do the same for Herod. I know this isn’t a role where you expect beautiful singing, but there is a limit to how much hooting Sprechstimme one can be allowed characterization’s sake. Or vocal frailty’s sake, for that matter. Marian Talaba’s gargled Narraboth likewise did the evening no favors. The Nazarenes and Jews sang just fine, though the Jews carried on like dudes at Tevye callbacks at the First Presbyterian theater club, which made me a little uncomfortable.

To make Salome so competently unmemorable requires special talent, but the Wiener Staatsoper is a special place.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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  1. Yup. Just as I would have remembered it had it not been so memorably forgettable (even the sub-Salome people – mostly). The same almost in every particular as to Nylund (except for the difficulty in the highs). Salome is certainly not her best vehicle either vocally (indeed its quite heavy for her I think) or temperarmentally. I'm not sure if you're saying this but I see her as being a (perhaps quite) bit less than the sum of her parts. At least she is, as you suggest, thoroughly professional. Something not always in evidence at the WSO.*

    And yes, the number of Wien productions older than me is rather impressive. I think there was generally a glut of productions there but in other houses as well (e.g. NYC and Munich Rosenkavalier, La Scala Barbiere, Strheler Figaros in Paris, Milan) in the late 60s and early 70s which has not been matched since.

    FWM said during the New Year's concert that he wanted to upgrade the quality of repertory performances. Good luck with that. Incidentally his Ein Heldenleben with Cleveland last night was intensely unimpressive compared Luisi's DSK effort a couple of years ago.

  2. I'm not qualified to comment on the musical side of things, but in June 2015 the sets and staging were truly spectacular when seen fron the standing area in the Parkett (? parterre). The late-evening to just-before-dawn variation in the lighting effect no doubt helped, and perhaps the gold paint has been touched up, but I am quite sure that both Oscar Wilde and Gustav Klimt would have been more than satisfied, and I was delighted beyond measure.