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See latest reviews of other albums..., September 2016

Scottish director David McVicar’s stunning 2008 production of Richard Strauss’s opera takes Pasolini’s controversially disturbing film 120 Days of Sodom as its visual reference, setting the opera’s action in a debauched palace in Nazi Germany. Strauss’s ravishing and voluptuous score adds to the sexual alchemy conjured by an international cast led by Leipzig-born soprano Nadja Michael in the title role, Michaela Schuster as Herodias, Thomas Moser as Herod, Joseph Kaiser as Narraboth and Michael Volle as Jokanaan. © 2016 Read complete review

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.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, February 2009

Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, created a sensation at its Dresden debut in 1905—thanks to a cutting-edge melding of a gripping text with harmonically adventurous music. Directors now often try additional means to shock today’s audiences into feeling the same kind of spine-chilling thrill.

David McVicar’s staging for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, last year pulled out all the stops, with a Nazi-era German setting, nudity and a smattering of stomach-churning gestures, such as having Salome place the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) between her spread legs as she glories in revenge.

It would be too much if the musical side weren’t so spot-on.

Nadja Michael is magnetic as Salome, the wanton princess unhinged by Jokanaan’s righteous accusations. Thomas Moser is a compelling Herod and Michael Volle an appropriately semi-lunatic Jokanaan. Among the smaller roles, Canadian Joseph Kaiser cuts a fine figure as Narraboth.

Philippe Jordan conducts the guts out of Strauss’s complex score, while McVicar’s triumph is in matching Strauss’s emotional and dramatic musical cues perfectly with what’s happening onstage.

As the orchestra plays its thudding final chords, one is left feeling limp, drained, wrung out by the experience—as Strauss intended.

The 100-minute opera DVD is joined by a separate disc containing a 50-minute documentary focusing on McVicar and the making of this production. The HD-quality picture and sound are a bonus.

Matthew Gurewitsch
Opera News, January 2009

A concept, a conception—what's the difference? David McVicar's Salome for Covent Garden, new last season, answers that question with the force of revelation.

The imagery, as disclosed in the expendable making-of documentary “David McVicar: A Work in Process”, derives from Pasolini's stomach-turning, widely banned Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Hence the fashions of the 1930s, the slaughterhouse-meets-bordello ambience (designs by Es Devlin). Yet far from using these references to footnote some contrived thesis, McVicar delves straight into the hearts and minds of his characters, with compassion where compassion is in order, but unmoved by mawkish sentiment. The Dance of the Seven Veils (choreographed by Andrew George) is not the striptease of cliché but imagist dance theater of a high order. The real world disappears as the waif-like Salome and a mammoth Herodes in formal wear traverse seven rooms, reliving cryptic scenes of pedophilia. Some byplay with a rag doll, with a mirror and a scarf, some waltzing, a stolen embrace, some undressing but no nudity, some splashing in a sink of water—these are stations of a degradation that leaves her strangely untouched. Amid the corruption, she clings to some private ideal of innocence. Salome's preoccupation with chastity (the moon's, Jochanaan's) is rarely so clear or so consequential as in this staging.

The set is on two levels—an upper dining room high in the frame of the proscenium and the tiled utility area below, connected by a monumental curving stairway. The documentary shows McVicar staging the banquet upstairs in elaborate detail, but the cameras in the auditorium capture none of that: they have too much else to focus on. The former mezzo-soprano Nadja Michael makes a mesmerizing Salome, demure in white satin, watchful as a snow leopard. Her eyes gaze out as from the mask of a china doll, missing nothing, giving nothing away. Michael Volle presents Jochanaan as a raging beast, so thoroughly in the grip of his demons as scarcely to notice Salome until she has crept much too close. Thomas Moser's Herodes is an ogre past caring what the world thinks of his transgressions, shadowed by a bovine Herodias (Michaela Schuster) who cannot manage him.

From the pit, Philippe Jordan conjures up fleeting tone poems of startling specificity—a ballroom here, a barracks there—all aglow with the requisite moonbeams and torchlight. The vocalism in general is highly satisfactory, though Michael's Salome is reaching for the moon, at her peril. Counterintuitively, the strain on her light instrument shows most in soft passages late in the opera, in notes that are perfectly steady, seamlessly integrated into the phrase and sorely off pitch. Pity the listener for whom these flaws break the spell.

For the record, McVicar's Herculean executioner was discovered outdoors at Covent Garden, working for coins as a living statue. On the stage of the Royal Opera House, he emerges from the cistern buck naked, drizzled with stage blood from top to toe, bearing a severed head that sets a standard for naturalism unlikely to be surpassed. Salome ends up bathed in gore, basking in sheer rapture. At Herodes's command, the executioner snaps her neck and lays her down as if to sleep—the loving protector she never had.

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