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Arthur Lintgen
Fanfare, March 2011

David McVicar’s provocative and controversial production of Salome uses Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Salò as its primary reference point. The principal action takes place in the downstairs basement, bathroom, and servant’s quarters. Jokanaan’s cistern is below the basement and Herod and the elite party upstairs. The production is highlighted by an absolutely riveting portrayal of Salome by Nadja Michael and McVicar’s strikingly original take on the “Dance of the Seven Veils” in which Salome and Herod move through a series of seven rooms presumably depicting the state of Salome’s mind including references to child abuse. Michael never lapses into stock operatic acting. She virtually inhabits the part as she slithers around the stage with unprecedented physicality. Michael’s relatively small voice is stretched to its limit, especially in the crucial final scene, but she never produces any really squally sounds and the fact that she is vocally teetering on the edge further amplifies the almost unbearable tension.

Blu-ray technology greatly enhances the dramatic effect of McVicar’s production with its striking silvery grays, blues, blacks, and almost three-dimensional images. When Herod and his buddies come down to the basement in their formal attire the contrast is telling, but it is nothing compared to the gruesome final scene where Salome’s pure white dress is drenched in Jokanaan’s blood. The close-ups of Michael’s facial expressions are stunning. Conductor Philippe Jordan emphasizes exotic orchestral color over brute force. The high-resolution surround sound is critically important when it comes to Strauss’s raging orchestra, but Michael’s voice is rarely overwhelmed. In short, the technical aspects of this Blu-ray make it far preferable to the standard DVD version. But there is another complicating factor. Luc Bondy’s more traditional La Scala production featuring an equally charismatic Michael in better voice is also available on a standard DVD (Fanfare 32:5) with a brutally forceful orchestral performance conducted by Daniel Harding that (dare I say) actually rivals Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in their legendary Decca recording with Birgit Nilsson’s vocally incomparable Salome. Michael fans as well as Straussians who want the technical perfection of Blu-ray but are not convinced by McVicar’s ideas will understandably want both of her performances. Regardless, no operaphile should miss the experience of Michael acting the role of Salome.

Joe Banno
The Classical Review, October 2010

Seen in a visually and aurally stunning new Blu-ray issue, David McVicar’s 2008 Covent Garden staging of Richard Strauss’s Salome (also available on DVD) provides a splendid showcase for Nadja Michael’s assumption of the title role. Sopranos with the vocal goods, looks and acting know-how to lend even scant, onstage credibility to Strauss’s iron-lunged teen nymphet are not exactly thick on the ground, but Michael possesses all three to a rare degree. If the voice—bright and lustrous on top, full-bodied in the middle and darkly commanding lower down—betrays some edge and sags a little in pitch on the highest notes, hers is nevertheless a far more alluring and better-balanced instrument than you’ll hear from the screechers and squawkers too often cast in the part.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that she’s physically lithe and agile, or that her striking good looks read as youthful on camera. She’s an intense and text-specific actor, and her large, expressive eyes reveal Salome’s tangle of psychosexual motives in telling detail.  Costumed by Es Devlin in slinky, 1930s’ evening dress and underwear, and with a bob of tousled blonde curls, Michael at times looks uncannily like Brigitte Helm in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, all soulful glances and curdled, dangerous sensuality.

Sex, in fact, is made anything but attractive in McVicar’s production, which (according to the unusually rich and revelatory ‘Making of’ documentary feature on the disc) consciously apes the Fascist European setting and lived-in depravity of Pasolini’s film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Throughout the performance, housemaids in various states of undress loiter about as if waiting for, or recovering from, some brutal encounter with the male servants in Herod’s mansion, and stare, dead-eyed, as the gruesome shenanigans of the opera unfold in front of them. Devlin’s split upstairs-downstairs set relegates Herod’s swanky dinner-party to a remote, upper part of the stage while, down a grand staircase, the main acting area is revealed as a multi-purpose, subterranean room lined with filthy white tiles and industrial drains, that serves as a combination servants’ quarters, meat-locker, wine-cellar and (quite prominently) urinal.

It’s appropriate in this unsavory environment that the final scene here is a far more stomach-turning affair than we’re used to. Salome sticking her fingers in the slack-jawed mouth of Jokanaan’s severed head—a spectacularly realistic prop that disgorges a good gallon’s worth of blood over Salome’s slip—is one of the most shockingly frank bits of erotic business I’ve seen on an opera stage. Bravo! And in a re-inventive stroke of genius, McVicar turns the Dance of the Seven Veils into a creepy scene of child abuse: as walls sweep across the stage, taking us back room-by-room into her childhood, a vulnerable, ragdoll-limp Salome reluctantly climbs into her nicest party dress, clutches a stuffed animal and dances a chilling, romantic waltz with the salivating Herod.

It’s regrettable that Thomas Moser’s Herod, for all his sturdy vocalism, is such a wooden actor, and that the equally fine singer, Michaela Schuster, settles for fluttery nerves and fits of socialite pique to serve as a portrait of Herodias. Michael Volle’s great grizzly bear of a Jokanaan, though, is as imposing in his pathological evangelizing as he is in the weight and soaring beauty of his baritone. Joseph Kaiser satisfies, too, as a mellifluous, appealingly callow Narraboth. And conductor Philippe Jordan mines the score for all its elemental power and eccentric color.

But, ultimately, this production is—as it should be—about that dance, that head, and that incomparable star turn.

Daniel Albright
Opera Today, August 2010

This high-concept Salome takes place in Nazi Germany.The set has two levels: on top, Herod revels with the banqueters; below, we see a dingy basement, full of kitchen workers, relaxed soldiers, and the prostitutes who help them relax.

To the left is a large manhole cover, under which Jochanaan fulminates; to the right is a spiral staircase, lit by a harsh moon.

It is easy to see why the director, David McVicar, would be attracted to this rehistoricizing. Suddenly the little ghost-waltz that accompanies Salome near her entrance (“Ich will nicht hineingehn”) becomes something like diegetic music; the extreme cruelty of much of the action becomes institutionalized as state policy; and we may recall, with a slight shiver, that Strauss’s only recordings as a opera conductor are of fragments from two 1942 performances of Salome. On the other hand, the opera’s treatment of the disputatious Jews is unsympathetic, and the Nietzschean Strauss said that he regarded Jochanaan in particular as a clown; so McVicar skirts a dangerous area of interpretation, in which the Jews of the Third Reich might seem to deserve what they get. Possibly McVicar tried to avoid this by playing down the comedy of the disputation-fugue: the Jews look at one another like mildly peeved intellectuals.

Wilde regarded Salome and John the Baptist as occult twins, and even contemplated a sequel in which Salome, still alive after being crushed by the soldiers’ shields, put on a hair-shirt and started to preach the gospel of Jesus in the wilderness; eventually she would make her way to France and fall through the frozen Rhône—the ice would refreeze leaving only her head visible. Nadja Michael’s Salome is hectoring, brutal, unseductive—she is a sexual being only through sadism. She doesn’t cajole Narraboth into opening the cistern: she browbeats him, and even pushes him to the floor when he capitulates. Michael raves powerfully throughout the opera, and sings powerfully too..Michael Volle’s Jochanaan is everything you could want: shirtless, dressed in a long drab Jewish coat with a phallic belt-dangle, he is a potent lunatic, uncontrolled in his gestures as he reels across the stage, but superbly controlled in his voice. When he sings of Herodias’ lovers—the young Egyptians in their delicate linen and hyacinth stones and golden shields and gigantic bodies—he writhes on the floor, as if he were caught up in some sexual trance at the thought of these beautiful young foreigners. This is how the production emphasizes the way in which Jochanaan and Salome are doubles: they are both obsessive-compulsives, obsessive-convulsives, mad with lust...Philippe Jordan, the brilliant conductor, makes the opera move like the wind (as all Strauss opera, particularly the schmaltzy ones, should move)...during Salome’s dance, here staged as a black-out scene in which Herod and Salome play together with a Salome-shaped doll, a dress-maker’s dummy, a large dressing-mirror, and a long rack of dresses—it’s a lovely conceit, as Salome enters Herod’s fantasy-world of fetishes and idols, deflections of sexuality onto dead images. Wilde’s Salome was never anything much more than an image in a mirror: “She is like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver,” Narraboth says, and in her dance she dances her way right into the glass that she, in some sense, never left.

Lawrence Devoe, August 2010

Salome is notoriously difficult to cast. The heroine must seem to be a hormone-driven teenager with the vocal chops of an mature Wagnerian soprano. Nadja Michael has made a specialty of this role and captures much of its neurotic self-absorption. She is visually appealing, lithe and feral. The final monologue, a dramatic soprano torture test, after nearly an hour of nonstop singing, is fearlessly if not note-perfectly delivered. However, sheer vocal honors go to Joseph Kaiser (Narraboth) a soldier in love with Salome who kills himself early in the opera, and Michael Volle (Jokanaan), an imposing bass-baritone. Special kudos goes to conductor Phillipe Jordan, a rising young star, who keeps this immense score under control...The production is set in 1930’s Third Reich Germany rather than in Biblical times...The dts-HD Master Audio (96kHz/24-bit) surround sound is superb. The sound stage is wide and sumptuous with good balance between the pit orchestra and the singers. Instrumental articulation is excellent largely due to synergy between Maestro Jordan and the sound engineers...There is a visual synopsis in still photos with a voice over...A 50-minute video featuring director David McVicar and his concept of the opera is included in standard definition.

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