Sir Peter Hall’s production of Strauss’ Salome caused a bit of a sensation when it was first seen at the Royal Opera House and when it was broadcast on Channel 4 because Lady Hall, Maria Ewing, finishes up naked at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils. How well does it wear after twenty years? First a couple of caveats. My DVD copy is the Kultur release of a few years ago. It now seems to be available from Opus Arte and it’s possible, indeed likely that some of the sound issues have been fixed in that release. If anybody has seen the Opus Arte version please let me know in comments. Anyway, the Kultur release has rather muffled sound with the voices balanced well back from the orchestra and no real solidity to the sound stage which is a pity in this particular work and obviously affects my view.
The production is really pretty conventional. There are lots of greens, greys and blue. It’s quite dark and the set is stagey and conventional. Almost all the visual interest revolves around Ewing’s Salome though Michael Devlin’s scantily clad and palely made up Jochanaan is quite arresting too. Narraboth (Robin Legate) is an unremarkable actor and Herod (Kenneth Riegel) and Herodias (Gillian Knight) look uncomfortably like a couple of drag queens. The latter though does manage a pretty effective hissy fit. For the sound reasons mentioned above it’s hard to be sure whether the rather insipid vocal performances by Devlin and Leggate are really their faults. There’s also no change in acoustic when Jochanaan is singing from the cistern which is odd. Riegel and Knight do better at projecting themselves beyond the orchestra and turn in OK performances.
All that said, one feels from beginning to end that this was set up to be the Maria Ewing show. One really can’t fault her acting which is quite compelling and manages by turns to be chilling, hypnotic, seductive, perverse, frenzied and orgasmic. The choreographer (Elizabeth Keen) does a pretty good job of creating credible dance moves for someone who clearly isn’t a great dancer though there’s no doubting her commitment to what she does. Vocally she gets away with a voice that’s really not big enough for the role. Somehow she manages a lot of projection from not so much volume and her vocal acting is good. It’s an extreme case of Ewing pretty much making things work when really they ought not to. The orchestra under Edward Downes sounds OK but also suffers from the recording.
The recording, directed by Derek Bailey, is about what one would expect from a 1992 TV broadcast. The picture quality is acceptable but not great 4:3 with hard coded English subtitles. Sound, as mentioned, is barely adequate. There are no extras and no documentation.
This is probably worth having a look at as a record of an iconic performance by Ewing but I can’t imagine anyone would choose it as the definitive Salome.
And just for fun, here’s a non-operatic bonus; a set of pictures of my copy of the 1938 edition of Wilde’s Salomé with pochoir illustrations by André Derain.
A definitive Salome… well, this production may not be perfect, but show me a Salome dvd without weaknesses! This opera it’s too much difficult to get all the things right, and today the productions are more interested in exude sensuality and shock rather than offering good singing. Apart Stratas / Böhm (which is a dubbed film, not a live performance), Ewing’s Salome it’s the one has satisfied me most, maybe because the conventional settings don’t distracted me of singers, plus a credible dance of Seven Veils, as you’ve mentioned. I cannot comment about the Art Haus dvd, ’cause mine is Kultur too.
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Funny how some people like to scorn that which is very good indeed. BTW Devlin is superb as John and gives it everything he’s got, BUT without messing about , I have 4 Salome DVDs and Ewing takes the cake. This is truly a 16 yer old truculent, spoiled, demanding and visciously sexual in her desires young Lady, who gradually worked up Herod into a sexual acceptance of her demand for Johns Head. Her final scene, as are all her scenes throughout are superbly acted, sweated and sung. WHAT A PRFORMANCE.
The only other performance I saw of a Strauss Opera which put my nervous system out to dry was the Elektra of Gerta Lammers in 1964 at CG.
The only other demands for Johns head Which might have bettered Ewings was sung on a CD by Kristol Goltz in the late 50s. I have heard many other Salomes, but none equal this spoiled little brats.
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I love how a nude woman is a sensation in the late 20th century, but not a teenager kissing a severed head in the early 20th century.
Oddly enough when the COC did Salome a couple of years ago (and bizarrely opened it with a Sunday matinee) there were people in the audience who appeared not to know the story and to be genuinely shocked by it. That said, I continue to be astonished that Ewing Salome review remains the most popular thing on Opera Ramblings year after year.
I am glad to hear that the uninitiated are still shocked, because it should be shocking. It’s hard for me to digest the notion that people familiar with opera mostly take this work in stride, as if it weren’t deeply, deeply strange. If I may be permitted to quote my own blogging on Salome: “A spoiled seventeen year-old girl with daddy issues tells a Biblical Prophet in front of a well-to-do audience that she wants to make out with him. Under Strauss, the prophet is the killjoy, and she the heroine. It gets me every time.”
But it’s not as if Strauss (or Wilde) invented the story of Salome, If there was an opera where Jesus was crucified it would be shocking but not unexpected!
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