The Cleveland Orchestra Goes Dark with Salome

Friday, May 25, 2012 - 10:00 AM

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.


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Comments [3]

Amanda from NYC

As with other reviews, I'm left wondering if I attended a different performance last Thursday. In the dress circle, Owens and Stemme were inaudible for large portions of the piece - any time the orchestra built the least bit of volume they were drowned out.

The entire cast seemed to be too dependent on their scores and the whole thing could have used another rehearsal or two. As it was, the performance sounded like a dress rehearsal. I got no characterization whatsoever from anyone but Herodes and Herodias, who were fantastic.

The orchestra sounded fantastic, I will give them that, although burying the highly dissonant chord at the end, which is arguably the most important part of the score, is just about unforgiveable. It was by no means a bad performance but it seems like too many, reviewers and attendees alike, are trying hard to make it into an "event," which it just was not.

May. 29 2012 12:23 PM
Ken Thompson from New York City

This concert was like the old days: a terrific performance with a spectacular cast and conductor. The audience in a sold out Carnegie Hall exploded in cheers after the last crunching chords from the orchestra. I was very impressed with Welser-Most's conducting. He led a performance that was subtle, controlled, sensitive to the drama taking place, with wonderful colors and shadings. He supported the singers instead of burying them in torrents of sound. He even made the section for the arguing Jews fascinating, instead of tedious, as is usually the case. Welser-Most's rendering of the Dance of the Veils was truly sensuous, not just a showpiece for the orchestra. While Nina Stemme, Eric Owens and Jane Henschel were all fantastic, I was bowled over with the performance of Rudolf Schasching-- he was simply the best Herod I have ever experienced. (My first live experience of Salome was with Nilsson and Bohm, and I have attended lots of other performances of that opera since then. It is a favorite of mine.)

May. 27 2012 01:49 AM

prepossesingly abstruse?

May. 25 2012 06:22 PM

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