I’ve learned not to dismiss Romeo Castellucci’s work on first watching because it has a nasty habit of starting to make sense on reflection. His 2018 production of Richard Strauss’ Salome for the Salzburg Festival may be a case in point. Castellucci seems determined to destroy any preconceptions we have about the work and Franz Welser-Möst in the pit is a willing accomplice.
So what does, or more pointedly, doesn’t happen? We are in the Fehlsenreitschule with all the archways blocked making a sort of massive amphitheatre. Costumes are stylized modern. The men, Jochanaan aside, wear black suits, hats and overcoats. They also have the lower part of their faces and heads painted red. Salome initially appears in a white dress with a splash of blood on the back. When we first see Jochanaan he is wearing a black furry outfit and is painted black. He looks curiously like a very large version of the shaman in the movie Black Robe.
The first three scenes are pretty straightforward bar a lot of ritualized arm movements and an obviously sexualized Salome. It starts to get a bit weird at the end of scene 3. There’s a horse (a real one) in the cistern and Salome is lying on her back with her dress pulled up to her thighs doing odd things with her legs.
Fast forward to the Dance of the Seven Veils. Somehow Salome does a quick change from dress to a black suit and comes on stage. She’s behind a wall of Jews, soldiers etc all waving their hands in the air. We can’t see her. When the wall disperses she’s on top of a large stone block inscribed “SAXA”. She’s in a foetal position wearing black underpants and she doesn’t move. Slowly another block descends from the fly covering her. When this is lifted away she’s gone but someone moves the “SAXA” block to reveal her in a white slip. All this is accompanied by the least erotic, least frenzied version of the music imaginable.
Fast forward again to the head scene. As Salome demands Jochanaan’s head there’s actually a severed horse head on stage. Eventually the soldiers bring not Jochanaan’s head but his decapitated corpse which they place in a chair. Salome does various things with corpse but she doesn’t kiss it. Eventually she retires to the cistern which by now is filled with water. After Herod’s “Kill that woman” nothing happens. The piece just ends.
So that’s it really; a Salome minus the Dance of the Seven Veils and any head kissing. The music too is stripped of the frenzy one usually gets. And yet, it’s not at all desexualized. In some ways quite the opposite. This is a very depraved Salome operating in a very depraved environment.
It works, if it does, because of the extraordinary performance of Asmik Grigorian in the title role. She’s got a lovely voice and she knows how to use it. She can produce a very light, bright girlish sound when she wants and the music allows, she has the heft to sing over the orchestra and she can really darken the voice quite chillingly as heard in the multiple “Bring me the head”s. She’s also a very good physical actress and quite the looker. She’s well supported by Gábor Bretz as a suitably stentorian Jochanaan. The Herod/Herodias pairing of John Daszak and Anna Maria Chiuri is also very effective. The latter is really quite sinister.
I’ve briefly touched on Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting. It’s clearly, deliberately extremely civilized and having the Wiener Philharmoniker as the band helps. It would be going too far to say it sounds like that other Strauss but you get the idea.
Henning Kasten directed for video. It’s a huge set, often quite dark and yet sometimes the details are important so it’s a challenge to film. I think he does a very good job although one suspects that there was an element of monumentalism in the stage production that isn’t fully captured on film. Sound (DTS-HD-MA) and video quality are excellent on Blu-ray. I strongly suspect this is one of those recordings where DVD though is going to be pretty marginal. There are no extras on the disk and the booklet is not very helpful with very short introductory notes, a synopsis and track listing. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.
I think there’s plenty in this production for someone who wants to be challenged but I wouldn’t say it was a good introduction to Salome. Someone not familiar with the piece is likely better served by David McVicar’s much more literal approach.