Masterpieces that come into the world amid scandal pass into posterity with more than typical expectations of greatness. Whether anybody says so or not, the shock value is expected to continue beyond the society that created it – especially in Salome, Richard Strauss's 1905 opera that concludes with the Biblical princess dancing in exchange for the decapitated head of St. John the Baptist.
Without so much as an outrageously updated production or even a fake head, the visiting Vienna State Opera at Carnegie Hall delivered a near-seismic concert version of Salome on Saturday. Just two raised platforms on each side of the stage. And an accomplished cast that didn't have the world's starriest soprano singing Salome. Under Andris Nelsons, the performance projected the opera's astounding compositional strategy at every turn but was as disturbingly creepy as when I first encountered Salome decades ago and was left unable to sleep.
Such an accomplishment isn't purely musical. Sometimes when the exterior plushness of Strauss's orchestration becomes unduly comfortable, it's a side effect from the cast singing notes more than words. On Saturday, words were so vivid that the surtitle screen wasn't really needed. And the singers – only one of whom I've heard previously – knew what they were about right down to the minor roles, including exceptional singing from unlikely places such as Ulrike Helzel's Page.
Gerhard A. Siegel gave the most vivid Herod of my experience – partly because the role was sung with precision by a tenor in his prime rather than barked by a pre-retirement Tristan. In fact, the opera temporarily belonged to him following the Dance of the Seven Veils: Recognizing Jochanaan's rough-hewn holiness, he attempted to divert Salome from ordering the prophet's death as if fighting for his own life.
Mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel is also in her prime, though after hearing her towering Ortrud over the summer in Montreal, the role of Herodias only taps a fraction of what she can do. As Jochanaan, Falk Struckmann was replaced at the last minute by Tomasz Konieczny, who was perfectly capable, but never quite projected the fear of God.
Any effective Salome is a hero in my book. Gun-Brit Barkmin, an unknown in these parts, succeeded with a soprano suitable for lighter Wagnerian roles (she also sings Sieglinde) and an intelligence that mapped out the role's psychology skillfully. Early on, when one still didn't know the full extent of her vocal resources, she announced her name and royal rank to Jochanaan with an imperious, proud fortissmo – destablishing her entitlement with sociopathic grandiosity.
Beyond that, she projected the character's passion with cool vocal accuracy, perhaps not with the extra resources of power one might want in the final 20 minutes. But her stage charisma suggested a cross between an Aubrey Beardsley ink drawing and an art-deco party girl – creating a thrilling package.
The star was the orchestra (I'm told, informally, that there were seven women among the pack). I've heard the Vienna Philharmonic play Salome on red letter days (such as Leonie Rysanek's farewell to the title role) but it was nothing like this. Though Nelsons has the physicality of Georg Solti, he approaches the opera with few dramatic hard edges. The performance's fever came from within, not from dramatic entrances and exits, thus telling the opera's story through fine gradations of orchestra color and razor-precise string tremolos.
More subliminally, Nelsons brought out the score's brand of collision. For all of his compositional fluidity, Strauss could juxtapose his diverse gallery of Salome characters with an almost cut-and-paste manner, revealed by Nelsons with an abruptness that never let you be lulled into an more abstract world of orchestral color. One oddly eloquent point was the tuba: Never before did that instrument seem to embody the opera's dark heart as on Saturday.