An Incandescent Salome at BSO

Andris Nelsons Knows His Way Around Opera

By: - Mar 11, 2014


Music by Richard Strauss
Text adapted by Strauss from the German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play “Salomé”
Premiered in Dresden in 1908
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Andris Nelsons
March 6, 2014
Cast: Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salome), Jane Henschel (Herodias), Gerhard Siegel (Herod), Evgeny Nikitin (Jochanaan), Carlos Osuna (Narraboth), Renée Tatum (Page), David Cangelosi (First Jew), Alex Richardson (Second Jew), Dominic Armstrong (Third Jew), Jason Ferrante (Fourth Jew), Walter Fink (Fifth Jew), Nathan Stark (First Nazarene), Michael Meraw (Second Nazarene), Keith Miller (First Soldier), Ryan Speedo Green (Second Soldier), Robert Honeysucker (A Cappadocian), Abigail Fischer (A Slave)

I’d never entered Symphony Hall by the Stage Door before. But since all the press tickets for the BSO’s one-night performance of Richard Strauss’s lurid masterpiece “Salome,” to be conducted by new Music Director designate Andris Nelsons, were gone by the time I asked for one, I had to make do with hearing it the morning before the performance at a rehearsal open to the press and a handful of friends of the orchestra. It started at 10:30 a.m., an hour at which I am usually still in bed, but one sacrifices for the readers of, so I set the alarm to get there on time. I should have known to have asked for a ticket earlier than I did – this was the hottest ticket in town.

Attending the open rehearsal turned out to have its virtues. The couple of dozen invited guests were seated in the first balcony close to the stage, where the sound and sightlines are good. The orchestra members were dressed in somewhat slovenly mufti. A little girl seated behind me called out “daddy!” when the soloists walked out. It all seemed very casual, gemütlich, until Nelsons mounted the podium and raised his baton. Then, despite the jeans and t-shirts and what looked like a heavy metal sweatshirt Evgeny Nikitin, the morning’s Jochanaan – John the Baptist – was wearing, the band played like the great musicians they are and the vocal soloists sang their hearts out.

For those who have never attended a BSO concert at Symphony Hall, let me report: the BSO makes a mighty sound, a sound that cannot be captured on recordings no matter how expensive the system, and few works ask for more glorious noise than Strauss’s “Salome.” The orchestra is enormous: 32 violins, a dozen violas, ten cellos, eight double basses and it seemed like every woodwind and brass player in the greater Boston area. And that doesn’t even account for the harps, tambourine, xylophone, harmonium, gong, kettledrum, timpani, castanet, triangle, glockenspiel and celesta. Nelsons, the BSO director designate, kept them all in control, bringing out the nuances of the intricately written score with delicacy. A young 35, he was animated throughout the nearly two-hour work, his long arms swooping out like a great bird to embrace the players, even dancing awkwardly – call it the Latvian frug - during the (in)famous Dance of the Seven Veils.

The wonder was how the vocal soloists, lined up at the lip of the stage, could be heard over the infernal racket the orchestra would make from time to time. (It would also make lovely, soft, lyrical sounds when required.) But they seemed to have no problem. The principals were used to singing big operas – Wagner, as well as Strauss - with big orchestras. As Salome, Berliner Gun-Brit Barkmin, the star of the show, might have had some pitch problems, but her soaring voice cut through the orchestral sound like a knife. If that means that her voice has a metallic cast to it, that’s the case; she lacks the creamy sound of a Ljuba Welitsch or Montserrat Caballe, who were great Salomes, but she was so hot she almost set Symphony Hall on fire.

Anyway, I left on such a high – there is nothing in all of opera literature quite like the extended finale starting with Salome’s salacious dance, followed by her request for the head of the prophet of the coming of Jesus Christ, the rhapsodic aria she sings to it before she kisses his cold dead lips and the final death she endures by order of her step-father Herod - that I wanted to hear it again. Impossible! Not only were there no press tickets left for the single performance scheduled for a paying audience, there were no tickets at all available – it was sold out. Then, early the next morning, as I was drifting off to sleep – a moment when I have my best flashes of inspiration, a thought appeared: “Rush Tickets!!!!!” The BSO has sold so-called “rush tickets” at reduced prices – today $9 - a few hours before performances for god-only-knows how many years. Originally intended for New England Conservatory students, they now attract a motley crew, mostly retirees. The next morning I remembered my brilliant insight, called the box office to see if rush tickets would be available, and when told yes, I rearranged my day, placing “Salome” at its center.

Rush tickets have the virtue of economy but the disadvantage of sound: you sit in the last six rows of the orchestra under the balcony, where the sound is severely muffled. (Those who say that Symphony Hall has the best acoustics of any concert hall in

America should be forced to hear a few concerts sitting there.) Still, I got to hear one of my favorite operas a second time, this time with everyone dressed professionally, the orchestra members elegant in black, the singers in variants of formal wear – and there were supertitles, so I was able to better follow the drama line-by-line. (To prepare myself for the rehearsal I watched on YouTube the complete performance of the Covent Garden production by Luc Bondy, conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, with the dream cast of Catherine Malfitano, Bryn Terfel, Anja Silja and Kenneth  Riegle - a production I had actually attended, which remains in my personal top ten of the best opera productions ever. But you can only remember so much of the dialogue if German is not one of your languages.)

So, I was able to follow the text more closely, but the sound was distanced. Unfortunately, tragically, Barkmin had more pitch problems than she had had the day before. But she looked fabulous in a floor-length black gown with silvery gray medallions, the long sleeves and hood of which made her look like one of Gustav Klimt’s haute-bourgeois Viennese ladies.

Still, it was a brilliant evening of opera at symphony – there should be more of them, opera evenings at the BSO - the crowd went crazy and I left on a high, if not quite as elevated as I had the morning before. This is what happens when the instrument played is the human body. Ask ballet dancers, it’s even worse for them. Not that Barkmin, a young woman, is ready to retire. She had an off night, after having given her all during the rehearsal. Still she gave an electrifying performance. Barkmin will have many great nights ahead of her, as Salome and as many of the other great female roles in her repertoire (Sieglinde; Chrysothemis; Ariadne; Lady Macbeth, and her provincial Russian counterpart by Shostakovich; Emilia Marty and Ellen Orford). I hope the BSO brings her back.

Because I live in Boston where early music forms a major part of the musical diet, I have become a devotee of Baroque opera in the great continuum from Monteverdi to Gluck through Cavalli, Lully, Rameau and Handel. But I have always been profoundly attracted to the great works of music, literature, architecture and painting from the turn of the last century, an age of Decadence that gave way to a new cultural Renaissance eventually called modernism. A time of transition from a period of order to an unknown future, it gave artists license to explore formal and psychological ideas that had not been addressed by art before.

“Salome” is a crucial work in that aesthetic revolution. A masterpiece of Decadence, it concludes with a love-death, a common enough trope in art, of a particularly gruesome nature: a young girl, a teenage Jewish princess, most likely a virgin, forms a desire so great for a holy man, a prophet of a new religion, that she has him decapitated when he rejects her and makes love to his severed head. Just the bare outline of the story gives you the chills. But when she sings, to his severed head, “Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jokanaan” (Ah! I have kissed they mouth, Jochanaan), you feel a chill colder than you’ve ever felt before.

Originally a short paragraph in the Bible, the protagonist so insignificant she remained unnamed, it was seized upon by Oscar Wilde, who wrote the text in French, expecting a better reception in Paris than in stuffy London. (The English translation was by Lord Alfred Douglas, the boy-toy who got him in so much trouble, and the illustrations were by Aubrey Beardsley, the poster boy of Decadence.)

How could Strauss resist? A composer who lived to shock – most of his famous tone poems, which today are staples of the concert repertoire, were controversial when new – Wilde’s “Salomé” must have seemed tailor-made for his reentry into the opera world. It had everything – a femme fatale, luxurious and oriental Jews, incest – Herod had married his brother’s wife and lusted for her pubescent daughter – and sensuous poetry about the moon that asked to be set to music. The music is emotionally heightened from the first notes and the swoon-worthy moments come fast and furious. Three nights after having heard it, I still cannot get the haunting four-note Salome motif out of my head. It’s enough to drive one mad.

The cast was superb. Birkman was totally committed to the role musically and dramatically. When, in the final scene, Herod, with increasing hysteria, tries to bargain with her, offering her half his kingdom, emeralds, his famous white peacocks, to no avail, Birkmin answers each time, with petulance, “Ich will den Kopf des Jokanaan” (Give me the head of Jochanaan), you realize that despite her seeming sexual precociousness, she is still merely a child. And the fools think that children are innocent.

As Herod and Herodias, the couple from Hell, Gerhard Siegel and Jane Henschel were so strong vocally and dramatically that they helped rebalance the story from that of Salome and her lust for John the Baptist to their own spectacularly dysfunctional family. Henschel’s mezzo-soprano was rich, chocolately, deeply communicative. Siegel’s tenor was powerful, his interpretation of the role astonishing: he almost made Herod a sympathetic character. Lustful – not only for his step-daughter but for the handsome Syrian soldier who kills himself because he is so in love with her – decadent, hysterical, Siegel also shows Herod to be, in a sick sort of way, a family man, appalled by his step-daughter’s depravity, and aware of the strict edicts of his religion.

As Jochanaan, the Russian baritone, Evgeny Kikitin, sang beautifully, soberly, but his rigidity kept him from fully expressing Jochanaan’s humanity. The smaller roles were all well cast. Particularly sympathetic was the Mexican tenor Carlos Osuna as Narraboth, the young Syrian captain of the guard whose love for Salome gives him some of the most lyrical music in the entire opera. Also outstanding as the First Soldier was bass-baritone Keith Miller, a professional football player before taking to the opera stage, who sang with simple passion that Jochanaan was a holy man (“Er ist ein heil’ger Mann.”) The five Jews were vocally okay, but they failed to communicate the disputatiousness of the characters as written.

The greatest disappointment was that the BSO scheduled such a special program only once. (It plays most of its programs three times.) Most likely the reason is that Nelsons, who conducted “Salome” with the Vienna Philharmonic, his other orchestra, at Carnegie Hall a couple of nights before with largely the same cast, squeezed it in here in Boston. For that we can be grateful. But in announcing the coming season, his first as music director, at a press conference after the Wednesday rehearsal, he mentioned that there was only one opera scheduled, “King Roger” by the Polish modernist Karol Syzmanowksi. A true rarity, it will be performed for only two performances with Charles Dutoit as conductor. Nelsons recalled that he had his first gig playing trumpet at the Riga (Latvia) Opera and that later he became its conductor, his first post as such. One would hope that he would conduct opera performances here in Boston. Without a major opera company here, we need it.

Andris, the BSO made you throw out a ball at Fenway. When it comes to opera, are you willing to step up to the plate?