Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Email Password  
Not a subscriber yet?  
Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Raymond Tuttle
Classical Net, May 2009

Michael’s biggest assets here are visual. She’s young, attractive, athletic, a good actress, and a good dancer too. She does her own Dance of the Seven Veils, and does it well—for once, Herod’s cries of “Herrlich!” do not seem misplaced. Director Luc Bondy encourages her to go off the deep end during the final scene, which more than hints at necrophilia, so easily offended viewers should consider themselves warned. In earlier scenes, there’s a sense of innocence, albeit innocence gone wrong, but by the end of the opera, we know that this innocence has dissipated. One might argue that Herod’s decision to kill Salome is as much to punish her for becoming a woman as it is a reaction to her antics with Jochanaan’s head. Vocally, though, she’s not a heavy-hitter in the tradition of great Salomes such as Birgit Nilsson, Hildegard Behrens, and Gwyneth Jones. She projects over the orchestra well, but the voice lacks heft and remains brightly monochromatic, except when she actually is distorting it for expressive effect. She also wobbles, although not to an alarming degree. The result is a performance that is dramatically satisfying, but somewhat less so vocally.

The rest of the cast sings well, although not memorably, and has to cope with the mix-and-match whims of Bondy and Susanne Raschig’s costume design. Falk Struckmann is a sonorous, intense Jochanaan, but it doesn’t help that he’s been costumed to look like a caveman. Herodes is sung with less vocal caricature than one often hears in this role, although Peter Bronder has been given punky orange hair. Iris Vermilion’s stentorian Herodias seems to have been inspired by Gloria Swanson. Narraboth is more traditionally garbed, but Herodias’ Page has a Bride of Frankenstein streak of white running through his/her hair. One of the smaller roles seems to have been costumed in the style of Oscar Wilde himself. The set design suggests the past century, perhaps in some tottering, corrupt state. Of Herodes’ wealth there is not a trace, until he pulls out his jewels in his vain attempt to dissuade Salome from claiming her gory prize. The cistern in which Jochanaan is imprisoned is more like a bunker, and a narrow trench irregularly bisects the stage; I kept waiting for one of the singers to fall in. The staging is fairly traditional, although before and after Salome’s dance, the opera seems to be in danger of turning into a family drama for the royal couple and their spoiled daughter—“Bringing Up Father” Judean style?

Daniel Harding’s conducting is responsive, colorful, and detailed, although he misses the sweep that one ideally wants in this score. Even more than usual, this Salome is an orchestral tone poem with voices.

The sound is fine, and so are the picture and videography, generally.

Arthur Lintgen
Fanfare, May 2009

This is the second DVD released in the past several months highlighting Nadja Michael’s sensational performance as Salome. She was the focal point of David McVicar’s controversial Covent Garden production, and she is even better here. After an initial titillating view of McVicar’s provocative production, I suspect that most Richard Strauss aficionados and opera-lovers will prefer this relatively plain and conventional live La Scala version (which is basically director Luc Bondy’s 1992 Salzburg/Covent Garden production with a few modifications). Bondy adheres to Strauss’s intentions with a single monochromatic and minimalist set, in this case, a cold and dark room with bluish lighting and a large moon shining through a single window. At stage center is a long, movable, metallic appearing structure with a flat top overlying Jochanaan’s cistern. This is a pivotal area on the set for Michael because her Salome is first and foremost about her incredibly graceful and balletic movements on stage. She slithers around and climbs over the top of the cistern with amazing athleticism. She absolutely refuses to wander around the stage at any time in stock operatic fashion. Every move and facial expression (effectively captured by the camera close-ups) has a calculated meaning, but her performance seems totally spontaneous. The “Dance of the Seven Veils,” performed in a darkly colored, discrete, see-through outfit, is suitably erotic and more conventional than McVicar’s bizarre and somewhat nebulous trip through a series of doors. Again, it is left uncertain as to what happens at the climax, which occurs offstage (as with McVicar). Michael’s finale is incredibly intense, even though her voice is small for Salome. As in the McVicar production, she is constantly on the edge vocally, but that succeeds in adding to the suspense and veracity of her portrayal. She is in better voice here. There is no question that Michael’s Salome works better on DVD than it would on CD.

After Michael’s Salome, one would think that the supporting roles would hardly matter, but they are uniformly good here. Peter Bronder’s Herod presents as an absurd little figure with bright red-orange hair and a costume resembling a pair of pajamas covered by a bathrobe or cloak. His singing is fine. Iris Vermillion (Herodias) wears an expression and purplish hairdo that are somewhere between Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein (both of which were memorably scored by Franz Waxman who took his stylistic cue from Salome in the final scene from Sunset Boulevard). Vermillion is equally fine vocally. This is great stuff. Falk Struckmann’s voice lies well for Jochanaan, but his rather chunky figure make’s Salome’s comments about how gaunt he is seem sort of silly. Matthias Klink (Narraboth) has an extremely attractive lyric tenor voice, and his suicide is actually integrated into the action (as opposed to McVicar’s version where Narraboth almost parenthetically kills himself in the background). The La Scala Orchestra sounds amazing. Daniel Harding presides over an orchestral performance that rivals Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in their Decca-London recording with Birgit Nilsson’s vocally memorable Salome. The orchestral interlude following Salome’s confrontation with Jochanaan is ferocious, but Harding never overpowers his singers and is just as effective in bringing out all of the exotic nuances of Strauss’s score. After watching Michael here, I am prepared to say that she may even surpass Teresa Stratas in terms of stage presence and movement. Her performance and Strauss’s music can be mesmerizing. She does not have the pure vocal command of Karita Mattila, but her voice is probably closer to what Strauss had in mind when he warned that the orchestra should not drown out the singers in Salome. As for Michael’s acting, there is no contest.

The album contains only a brief essay on Salome and a list of index points. Audio formats are PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 surround. Since this is unfortunately not a Blu-ray, stereo is clearly preferable. Subtitles are available in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Strauss fans need to see Michael’s Salome, and this is her preferred version. Now, someone needs to release a DVD of Michael’s early 2009 Covent Garden performance in Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt.

Chris Mullins
Opera Today, April 2009

Conductor Daniel Harding goes for a hard-edged, tense reading, ignoring Strauss’s arguably disingenuous proclamation that his score should be treated as if it were by Mendelssohn. The result may not be subtle, but it is often exciting, which helps, since Bondy’s monochrome set and purposeless updating don’t produce much of that quality.

A huge crack runs through the foundation of an outer area of the palace, and Jochanaan has been tucked away somewhere in its depths. Plantation shutters form one wall, and on the other side, a stadium-width passage leads to the interior of the palace. Occasionally TV director Emanuele Garofalo films the action from behind the plantation shutters, presumably for a “voyeur” effect, but merely interrupting whatever dramatic flow is in progress.

Susanne Raschig’s costumes neither seem to be biblical nor clearly of one particular epoch, though some look vaguely late 19th century, such as those of the soldiers. Why she clothed Peter Bronder as Herodes in silky cargo pants and tunic never became clear to your reviewer. Bronder, shorter by a good foot than his imperious Herodias (Iris Vermillion), camps it up like the comic relief in an operetta, diluting the dark undercurrents of the story (whose surface is dark enough, agreed). Despite the fine work of the supporting cast, especially Matthias Klink’s painfully deluded Narraboth, the first hour of this Salome drags itself along clumsily. Only with Michael’s dance do sparks of life appear, though mostly due to her efforts; the choreography offers nothing new. Michael manages to make Salome’s contempt for her step-father clear while still projecting the raw sexuality the twisted man desires to see. Vocally, she seems to have saved just the right amount of power in reserve for the long final scene, and it is better singing overall than she manages as Tosca. The wiry nature of her instrument proves deceptive as it fills out nicely for the climaxes. After making some fitful attempts at innovation and reinterpretation, Bondy strangely goes for the “crushed between the shields” for Salome’s exit, final evidence that no cohesive thought lies behind the production.

Robert Croan
Opera News, April 2009

No perfumed exoticism here: this La Scala Salome of March 2007 is an affair of unmitigated grimness. Erich Wonder’s claustrophobic grey-concrete set might better have served as a backdrop for Elektra. Despite the fact that characters paw one another and writhe on the floor now and then, Luc Bondy’s staging is as anti-erotic as it is removed from the atmosphere of Wilde’s play or Strauss’s score.

The trouser roles of the Page and a slave are played as females. The soldiers are modern SS types, but the Cappadocian wears a Napoleonic uniform. Jochanaan allows Salome more physical proximity than is customary. Herodes is small and twerpy; Herodias is a dominatrix. The five Jews—musically excellent—are joined by extras who confuse the issue. The head of Jochanaan is delivered to Salome almost decorously, in a white cloth (all the more gruesome when she eventually unwraps it).

Too bad the staging is so dismal, since the individual characterizations are excellent. German soprano Nadja Michael is quickly becoming the Salome of choice in Europe. A professional swimmer in the former East Germany, Michael, now in her late thirties, has kept her svelte, athletic body and can move with the catlike litheness of a teenager while singing with Wagnerian heft. Her face is expressive, reacting to nearly every detail around her—but not to poor Narraboth, whom she brushes aside without notice when he kills himself at her feet.

Not quite the voice of Isolde that Strauss said the role called for, Michael is more a lirico spinto in timbre, but her voice is a strong one that cuts easily through the thick orchestral texture produced by the La Scala Orchestra under young English conductor Daniel Harding. She tends to vary volume but not tonal color, and while she sings forcefully in Salome’s grueling final lines, she breaks more phrases for extra breaths as the opera progresses. Harding too, varies volume more than color, pushing the orchestra unremittingly in a solid, unsubtle way.

Best are Salome’s scenes with the vocally resplendent Jochanaan of Falk Struckmann. There’s not much physical charisma in Struckmann’s prophet, but his soaring baritone demands attention whether he is singing onstage or from the cistern. It’s a great sound, and he colors every line with meaning. The segment in which this Jochanaan takes Salome’s hand, sings almost erotically in an attempt to convert her, then scorns her when she continues to ask for his body, is realized with infinite nuance.

As Herodes, Peter Bronder, too, interacts intricately with Michael’s Salome, all but drooling over her during the dance. Unlike many Herodeses, he sings with beauty of tone and even a modicum of legato. Iris Vermillion stalks menacingly as Herodias but declaims more than sings her words. Matthias Klink’s Narraboth is at once handsome in bearing and appealingly vocalized.

Kurt Moses
American Record Guide, March 2009

These are two recent staged performances, one from London’s, the other from Milan. The German soprano Nadja Michael sings the title role in both, with different supporting casts. The modern productions are quite similar in style, and the two conductors also have much in common.

Michael is a slim, attractive woman with a penetrating, essentially lyric voice that’s ample but lacking in warmth and tonal allure. In the climactic passages of the opera, it sometimes sounds strained; she doesn’t have the vocal resources of Nilsson, Borkh, or Goltz. In the final scene her voice even turns shrill; still she’s always riveting and dramatically compelling. She’s a talented actress who isn’t afraid to stretch her interpretation beyond traditional limits, for example, in fondling and kissing Jokanaan’s head. She portrays Salome as a willful, out-of-control adolescent in search of sexual adventures whom no one can stop. She’s very active, runs around the stage much of the time, crouches, lies down, and makes physical contact—some quite intimate—with other members of the cast. Her acting is more extreme in the London performance.

Neither Velle’s nor Struckmann’s baritone is smooth or lyrical enough to do justice to Jokanaan’s role; their acting and interpretations are also strikingly similar. They portray the Prophet as a pompous extrovert who has no idea what Salome is up to. I find their singing deficient in lyrical expression when they declaim about Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. Thomas Moser’s appealing tenor is still in good enough shape to sing Herod without barking (as some Herods do); his characterization is apt. For some reason, Salome dances with him as well as for him; she does it again with Peter Bronder at La Scala. (This dancing precedes the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’.) But Bronder does bark some of his lines and he overacts much of the time. Both Herodias singers sound shrill; but Kaiser and Klink do well with Narraboth’s lyrical music, their voices sweet and beautiful. (Kaiser, a young Canadian tenor, has been praised for his work as Gounod’s Romeo at the Met).

The Covent Garden production, directed by David McVickar, is set in a courtyard; La Scala’s, directed by Luc Bondy, is in a hall of, presumably, a palace. (Both settings are better than the current Met production by Jürgen Flimm, which is an odd combination of the modern and the traditional.) Jordan and Harding are both dynamic conductors. Jordan has the advantage of a better orchestra and better sound, but both give exciting readings of Strauss’s path-breaking score.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group