The Cleveland Orchestra Goes Dark with Salome

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The libretto of Richard Strauss’s Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s scandalous play of the same name, makes great and frequent allusions to things being silver.

Almost immediately, the title character is compared to a white rose in a mirror of silver. Upon her entrance, she calls the moon a silver flower; later she compares Jochanaan’s mouth to a pomegranate cut with a silver knife. And then, of course, there is the infamous silver platter upon which the head of John the Baptist is ultimately, fatefully delivered.

For all the silvered qualities of Wilde’s purple text, Strauss matches it with an orchestration that is dark and coppery, qualities brought out extremely potently in Thursday night’s concert reading of the one-act opera by the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst. Perhaps it was aided by the torrents of spring which gave way to a premature sunset, but the normally bright, golden-hued Carnegie Hall seemed especially dark as Strauss’s Judea came into light.

This was the second of two performances by the Clevelanders this week (the first of which WQXR broadcast) and an opportunity to hear a major Strauss work after New York's major opera houses have ended their seasons. It also marked a relatively rare New York appearance by the dramatic soprano Nina Stemme.

Although a divisive conductor (referred to in certain circles as “Frankly Worse than Most”), Welser-Möst illuminated the dark corners of Strauss’s score. His presence on the podium was workmanlike, all hands as he sawed through the air. The visuals, however, belied the aural component. Every foreboding overtone in the work is coaxed into the forefront with a sonorous orchestral tone—particularly in a remarkably rich-sounding horn section and an espressoed pair of oboists. At certain moments the sound is Alpine, falling in turbulent avalanches.

Matching the orchestra hue-for-hue was a cast of singers who each boasted after-hours voices. Garrett Sorenson as Narraboth, a young Syrian captain whose love (or at least lust) for Salome results in his own, subtle, suicide brandished a bronzed tenor full of angst and sexual frustration, aimed more at poignancy than prettiness. Likewise, Jennifer Johnson Cano’s burnished mezzo rang true and doleful as the page.

But as promising as many of the young artists were (one could spot Met mainstay Matthew Plenk, fresh from his spin in The Makropulos Case, among the cadre of Jews), the real show belonged undeniably to the central, unlikely couple. In the title role, Swedish soprano Stemme was prepossessingly abstruse. At times, it seemed like her Salome had premonitions of her fate and future and was diving headlong into actions that she knew would herald her demise.

Other moments, however—such as Stemme's red-faced final demand for the head of Jochanaan—showed her as a merely sullen teenager who, like so many before and after her, hates her parents and feels utterly misunderstood and overlooked. Her awakening at encountering Eric Owens’s omnipotent Jochanaan was nothing short of stunning. Owens himself offered some spine-tingling moments, simultaneously clashing with and complementing Stemme without the aid of stage action or scenery.

Providing a lightness amidst it all, however, was Austrian tenor Rudolf Schasching. His Herod, Salome’s stepfather and uncle, was less of an all-powerful ruler and more of a Colonel Klink-like figure, uncomfortable as many parents are with the dramatics of his wife’s progeny. It makes the moments in which Herod experiences true senses of foreboding (particularly once he grants Salome’s murderous request) all the more haunting: Rather than guide Salome out of her teenage wasteland, he sinks down to her level.

In the world Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra spun last night, the tragedy doesn’t lie in children acting like adults; rather it subsists on adults acting like children.