Opera & Operette
Salome in Amsterdam
© Paul Korenhof, november 2009
Richard Strauss: Salome
Solisten, Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest, Dirigent:: Stefan Soltesz.
De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, première 10 november 2009
Annalena Persson (Salome)
Regie: Peter Konwitschny
A disturbing 'Salome' with a happy ending
One of the most controversial directors of our time is Peter Konwitschny, son of the conductor Franz Konwitschny. His productions are always surprising and full of unexpected details, but it is very difficult to accuse him of being unfaithful to the score. He really knows the libretti and the scores of the operas he is staging, and he seems always able to parry any criticism with elements from the music or the libretto.
After some years with only a few revivals in his name the Netherlands Opera convinced him to return to the theatre with a new production of Richard Strauss' Salome, which subsequently was presented as a major event. A few days before the first night the Netherlands Opera even sent a letter to its subscribers to inform them about the importance of this event and the importance of this German director, but also to warn them about the unusual production they were going to witness...
And an unusual production it was indeed. From the first moment all the soloists were captured in a closed room with a long dinner table, suggesting to some the image of a 'decadent' modern society going towards its end. Apparently Jochanaan has to participate in this 'Last Supper' against his wishes: he is sitting behind the table all the same, but most of the time he has his head hidden in a paper bag which he only puts aside to preach, to have an occasional drink with Herod or for some other, somewhat unexpected diversions.
In all this Konwitschny, brought up in former Eastern Germany and following the traditional communist iconography, had deprived the word 'decadent' of all traces of delectation, luxury and refinement. To him 'decadent' seemed synonymous to the debauched extravaganza of perverted capitalism and he grasped every opportunity to make this clear. The audience saw Herodias copulating with everyone, including Jochanaan, under the table, on the table, in front of the table and behind the table, and Herod's page (no travesty but a maiden with a chef's cap in this performance) was delivering sexual services to Narraboth, while Narraboth himself was raped after his suicide by all the males available, including even Jochanaan and the nearly impotent Herod.
The only character who did not take part in all these activities was Salome, who only had to endure the fact that all the Jews laid their hands on her, but she seemed used to that. Also her dance with the table cloths - with the assistance of a drunk Herodias - lacked all eroticism, but the greatest surprise came when her closing scene developed into a real love scene with Jochanaan. At first there is also a copy of his head, but as he himself gets more interested in Salome, this spare head ascends to the ceiling as a new moon (the old one, a white balloon, has exploded some time before) and at the end of the opera both leave the stage in close harmony.
I already mentioned the fact that Konwitschny always finds words, musical phrases or even single notes to justify his staging, but this time more than ever many of these details seemed to have no connection at all with the work as a meaningful entity, and there we come to the heart of the matter. If you ask me where Konwitschny goes wrong, I think it is just because he does not see the entity created by librettist and composer. Undoubtedly every detail in his production will be originated by an element in the score, but it is wrong to suppose that a word, a note or a phrase has a meaning one can isolate from the context. In the contrary: it is just the context that defines the meaning, not only the context of music and words, but also the cultural and social context. By isolating a detail it will be deprived from its real meaning and that is what Konwitschny does again and again, going to the extreme in this Salome, that has nothing to do with the play by Oscar Wilde or the opera by Richard Strauss.
In this case the extreme abundance of details not only detracted from the work itself and from the performance as a whole, but Strauss' score was also degraded to musical wallpaper, although this was not only the fault of the production. Thanks to the uninspired conducting by Stefan Soltesz the unbalanced, weakly articulated playing of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra went by practically unnoticed and only the strong involvement of some of the soloists succeeded in breaking the musical impasse. Fine performances came from Albert Dohmen as an integer Jochanaan and from Marcel Reijans as an impetuous Narraboth. Less satisfying was the uneven and badly focused Herod of Gabriel Sadé, while the new Swedish soprano Annalena Persson only convinced by the visual portrayal of the title role. Her voice lacked the necessary colours, her timbre became thinner as the vocal line went higher and only during the closing scene there were some moments of vocal charm. If Herod's page also became colourless, it may be caused by the production more than by Barbara Kozelj, who displayed a fine mezzo-soprano, but was hampered by a character that became totally incredible. The opposite happened to Doris Soffel, who got the chance to create a greater-than-life Herodias, and who obviously enjoyed herself in a production she could completely dominate with strong singing and extravagant acting.