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Salome Succumbs to Desire in Munich

07/25/2021 -  & July 28, 2021
Richard Strauss : Salome, Op. 54
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Herodes), Michaela Schuster (Herodias), Marlis Petersen (Salome), Wolfgang Koch (Jochanaan), Pavol Breslik (Narraboth), Rachel Wilson (Page of Herodias), Scott MacAllister (First Jew), Roman Payer (Second Jew), Dean Power (Third Jew), Kevin Conners (Fourth Jew), Callum Thorpe (Fifth Jew), Derek Welton (First Nazarene), Ulrich Reiss (Second Nazarene), Martin Snell (First Soldier), Theodore Platt (A Cappadocian), Sophia Julia Schuetzinger (Wife of Cappadocian), Peter Jolesch (death dancer)
Bayerische Opera Orchestra, Kirill Petrenko (conductor)
Krzysztof Warlikowski (director, production), Malgorzata Szczęsniak (set design), Felice Ross (lighting), Kamil Polak (video), Claude Bardoul (choreography)

M. Petersen, P. Jolesch (© Wilfried Hösl)

Munich is reprising a production of Salome by Richard Strauss which premiered in 2019. Marlis Petersen creates a Salome for the ages. Her collaboration with the director Krzysztof Warlikowski and Kirill Petrenko, the conductor, produces a work of unusual power.

Warlikowski is a regular in Munich, and it is not hard to see why. He delves deep into a work. His mountings reflect a considered study of the composers’ and librettists’ intentions. Richard Strauss had cut about forty percent of Oscar Wilde’s play which he used to create this one act musical drama. Why did he not cut the squabbling Jews? They must have been important to him. Warlikowski makes them important in this production.

The opera opens with a prelude in which Mahler songs are being performed before this group of Jews. The set, created by Malgorzata Szczęsniak, looms over them. It may be a tabernacle anti-room or a library. The huge space exists in an indeterminate time. While it keeps a threatening outside world at bay for a moment, it also contains within its walls Jews facing extinction and a dysfunctional family. It is very dark.

Under its floors, in an area revealed as the set splits open, is a space which glows. Here Jochanaan the Baptist is confined. Salome will do her dance on its surface, which grades slightly up to the rear of the stage.

Doors admitting characters are on the side walls. They are latticed and cast mysterious dancing lights over the very dark set. In the rear of the stage, high windows admit the light of the moon, an important character in the play. The page Rachel Wilson sings beautifully about how strange the moon is: like a woman rising from a grave. Herodes sings of a moon with a strange look, like a mad woman seeking everywhere for lovers. The moon is part of Jochanaan’s prophecy of doom: the moon shall become like blood.

Emerging from the unilluminated, looming set, light forces attention. Jochanaan is confined to a bright cell. He is the doomed bright light in this opera. Salome dances in ever-brightening light. Felice Ross uses light subtly to make visual points.

Wilde was interested in Salome’s eroticism. Ironically, the object of his own passion sent him to jail and became the translator of the play Salome’s French text to English. Wilde had written in French because it was the language of music, in fact, a musical instrument. He said the play was “a beautiful, colored, musical thing.” Insistent repetition of dramatic phrases, chanted dialogue, fashionable orientalism and stark emotional contrasts all lent themselves to expression in music. Strauss had found the play’s text crying out for music, and composed. The result is a world teetering on the brink of moral bankruptcy.

The Mahler songs tip off a time setting for the opera. Created at the turn of the 20th century by Mahler, who was a Jew, they are mournful, and evoke the concern of a people worried about their future. Warlikowski has picked up this period. Now the only orientalism in the production is a splendid video projection by Kamil Polak which plays on the back wall during Salome’s dance. Here conductor Petrenko brings out the oriental motifs in the score.

At first, we are not aware that two dramas are unfolding simultaneously. These disconcerting, if not disturbing, parallel actions are never entirely resolved. You can see one group on stage looking at the action. Salome’s relationship with her mother and her stepfather turns into a drama which is watched by the Jews and Nazarenes, entertained at a Last Supper while they await their own fate.

Marlis Petersen invests in her characters. She started her performing career as a dancer and brings a powerful physical presence to the opera stage. Her voice is lovely, reaching high and daring to be ugly when her mood is. Costumed to move between the viewers, whose “wild howling” she escapes from early in the play, and her play-within-a-play dance, she is most often in a slim red dress, blood personified. Her Salome is not a wanton woman reveling in perversity, but a woman who knows desire for the first time, is consumed by it and compelled to action.

She is attracted to Jochanaan’s voice. Wolfgang Koch sings this role with a beauty that suggests truth. His music is tonal, like a psalm or hymn, and in sharp contrast to Salome’s exaggerated chromaticism and dissonance. He speaks of a Messiah, far more important than he is. He also accuses Herodias the Queen, of adultery, which, of course, she has committed. Michaela Schuster sings fiercely in her defense. Finger pointing does not help Jochanaan’s cause, and in fact, may bring about his downfall.

Strauss has flipped the convention of hero as tenor and bad man as bass/baritone. Now Jochanaan is the good man, bathed in spiritual light and insights. Herodes the tenor is weak. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke magnifies Herodes’ doubts as he sings of the winds. As the Syrian’s dead body is dragged away, Herodes feels the wind blowing. Petrenko brings out the lower register of the strings building volume and pitch before subsiding again. An ominous gust. Herodes then sings, “There is no wind.”

Strauss uses the chanting quality of repetition. Jochanaan repeats, “When he comes (about the Messiah) three times, but the tense is changed each time, using both may and will. The musical motif does not remain the same either. Koch makes the most of the subtle changes in pitch and rhythm, which Petrenko gradually intensifies in the orchestra.

Like the 1989 Nikolaus Lehnhoff production at the Metropolitan Opera, the final curtain drops abruptly as Herodes loses his authority. Whether or not Salome lives or dies, she has shattered her stepfather’s corrupt regime. The stage is silent. Does extinction loom for the stage audience too? Petersen has created an angel of destruction.

A churning emotional whirlwind surrounds Petrenko’s conduction. He is not afraid to go harsh. Yet he is every supportive of the singing cast.

Petrenko is wrapping up his tenure as music director of the Munich Opera. He gave a brief speech at the end of the performance. A retiring man, this is not his custom. The singers, orchestra members and the audience all gave him the same reception that Salome first got in Dresden. Overwhelming gratitude and appreciation for the gifts he gives.

Susan Hall



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