David McVicar’s Salome

To the left is a large manhole cover, under which Jochanaan
fulminates; to the right is a spiral staircase, lit by a harsh moon.

It is easy to see why the director, David McVicar, would be attracted to
this rehistoricizing. Suddenly the little ghost-waltz that accompanies Salome
near her entrance (“Ich will nicht hineingehn”) becomes something
like diegetic music; the extreme cruelty of much of the action becomes
institutionalized as state policy; and we may recall, with a slight shiver,
that Strauss’s only recordings as a opera conductor are of fragments from
two 1942 performances of Salome. On the other hand, the opera’s
treatment of the disputatious Jews is unsympathetic, and the Nietzschean
Strauss said that he regarded Jochanaan in particular as a clown; so McVicar
skirts a dangerous area of interpretation, in which the Jews of the Third Reich
might seem to deserve what they get. Possibly McVicar tried to avoid this by
playing down the comedy of the disputation-fugue: the Jews look at one another
like mildly peeved intellectuals.

Wilde regarded Salome and John the Baptist as occult twins, and even
contemplated a sequel in which Salome, still alive after being crushed by the
soldiers’ shields, put on a hair-shirt and started to preach the gospel
of Jesus in the wilderness; eventually she would make her way to France and
fall through the frozen RhÙne—the ice would refreeze leaving only her
head visible. Nadja Michael’s Salome is hectoring, brutal,
unseductive—she is a sexual being only through sadism. She doesn’t
cajole Narraboth into opening the cistern: she browbeats him, and even pushes
him to the floor when he capitulates. Michael raves powerfully throughout the
opera, and sings powerfully too, though she doesn’t always hit the
correct notes, and there’s a distracting warble in her voice, almost the
warble of 1940s pop singers.

Michael Volle’s Jochanaan is everything you could want: shirtless,
dressed in a long drab Jewish coat with a phallic belt-dangle, he is a potent
lunatic, uncontrolled in his gestures as he reels across the stage, but
superbly controlled in his voice. When he sings of Herodias’
lovers—the young Egyptians in their delicate linen and hyacinth stones
and golden shields and gigantic bodies—he writhes on the floor, as if he
were caught up in some sexual trance at the thought of these beautiful young
foreigners. This is how the production emphasizes the way in which Jochanaan
and Salome are doubles: they are both obsessive-compulsives,
obsessive-convulsives, mad with lust.

The unhappy aspect of this production is the Herod of Thomas Moser. Moser
can make a handsome sound, but he’s a somewhat listless presence, loud
but bland. Philippe Jordan, the brilliant conductor, makes the opera move like
the wind (as all Strauss opera, particularly the schmaltzy ones, should move)
except when Moser sings: then momentum is lost, perhaps owing to Moser’s
flaccid, rhythmically inexact phrasing. His one impressive scene is a silent
one, during Salome’s dance, here staged as a black-out scene in which
Herod and Salome play together with a Salome-shaped doll, a dress-maker’s
dummy, a large dressing-mirror, and a long rack of dresses—it’s a
lovely conceit, as Salome enters Herod’s fantasy-world of fetishes and
idols, deflections of sexuality onto dead images. Wilde’s Salome was
never anything much more than an image in a mirror: “She is like the
shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver,” Narraboth says, and in her
dance she dances her way right into the glass that she, in some sense, never

Daniel Albright


image_description=Richard Strauss: Salome
product_title=Richard Strauss: Salome
product_by=Salome: Nadja Michael; Herodias: Michaela Schuster; Herod: Thomas Moser; Narraboth: Joseph Kaiser; Jokanaan: Michael Volle. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Philippe Jordan, conductor. David McVicar, stage director. Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 3, 6, and 8 March, 2008.
product_id=Opus Arte OABD7069D [Blu-Ray]