WHAT a way to start another season! At a packed Lighthouse, the BSO gave an intense yet disciplined semi-staged performance of the scandalous and ground-breaking 1905 opera by Richard Strauss, backed by a world-class team of fifteen soloists.
The story of Salome, based on a play by Oscar Wilde, continues to shock audiences with its provocative brew of obsessive sexuality, incest, necrophilia, violence and the New Testament. Salome’s final outpouring of her passion for the blood-soaked severed head of John the Baptist is strong stuff indeed. However, despite its scandalous and controversial nature, it is a rare example of a work which was both at the cutting edge of the avant garde and has enjoyed sustained popularity with audiences. Its musical language, while being rooted in Wagner, is still pushing at the limits of conventional tonality. Strauss uses bitonality, where the music slides constantly between keys rather than being rooted in one: the opening clarinet scale, for example starts in C sharp and ends in G. The effect on the listener is disorienting and disturbing, as is fully appropriate to the subject matter. The music is feverish, restless, usually loud and often fast. Relaxing listening it is not.
Joe Austin’s semi-staged production worked well. The singers used both the areas in front of the orchestra and behind it, in the choir seats. Lighting helped to set the atmosphere and focus on the soloists. The singers could follow Karabits’s beat from large TV monitors placed behind the audience. Props and costume were kept to a minimum: Salome wore an appropriately alluring red dress, Herod wore a rather raffish scarf, and the severed head of John the Baptist had to be imagined resting on a real silver platter.
Surtitles above the stage kept us abreast of the detail of the action. The singers acted their parts with gesture and facial expression while singing out to the audience rather than to one another. John the Baptist’s dungeon was in one of the emergency exits behind the choir seats; this worked both dramatically and aurally, as his powerful bass was both clear and in a palpably different acoustic.
Karabits avoided hysteria and extreme tempi, allowing the detail of the startlingly original orchestration to emerge. The playing was lustrous in every department, with the brass on terrific form in both their velvety middle range and in the powerful climaxes. The international cast of singers was also consistently strong, led by the young American soprano Lise Lindstrom in the title role. She has a voice of immense power and beauty, sustained right through to the significant final low G flat on the word ‘todes’ (death), which is way below the normal soprano range.
This was a special occasion in every respect: lavishly cast, superbly performed and imaginatively staged, it was a real showcase for the world-class standards our local orchestra is reaching.