Something Dreadful is at Hand: Salome at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Strauss – Salome

Herodes – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Herodias – Michaela Schuster
Salome – Marlis Petersen
Jochanaan – Wolfgang Koch
Narraboth – Pavol Breslik
Ein Page der Herodias – Rachael Wilson
Erster Jude – Scott MacAllister
Zweiter Jude – Roman Payer
Dritter Jude – Kristofer Lundin
Vierter Jude – Kevin Conners
Fünfter Jude – Peter Lobert
Erster Nazarener – Callum Thorpe
Zweiter Nazarener – Ulrich Reß
Erster Soldat – Kristof Klorek
Zweiter Soldat – Alexander Milev
Ein Cappadocier – Milan Sijanov

Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kirill Petrenko.
Stage Director – Krzysztof Warlikowski

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, Germany.  Saturday, July 6th, 2019

When confronted with horror, how do we escape it when trapped within four walls, and where escape will result in imminent death?  That’s the premise that appears to be behind Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new staging of Salome at the Bayerische Staatsoper.  I write ‘appears’ because Warlikowski gives us quite an ambiguous staging, one that reveals itself slowly, that makes us question what’s real and what isn’t.  Yet it’s also one that has a devastating impact in its closing tableau.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Salome sings about how ‘das Geheimnis der Liebe ist grösser als das Geheimnis des Todes‘ (the secret of love is greater than the secret of death) and Warlikowski’s staging explores both themes in depth – love, or at least lust, and death are a constant presence throughout.  He plants clues, as the evening develops, as to what really lies beneath, so that as Herod sings ‘Es wird Schreckliches geschehn’ (something terrible will happen), the feeling of dread is palpable.  Warlikowski sets the action in what appears to be the 1930s or 40s.  We find ourselves in a well-heeled Jewish home, one where a knock on the door forces the inhabitants to hide.  As the curtain rises, we’re greeted by the sight of Narraboth, and others, acting out a scene to the soundtrack of ‘Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n’ from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.  This is clearly a place living with trauma and loss, trying to find escapism in something, anything, to draw attention away from what is happening outside.  The teenage daughter initiates a re-enactment of the story of Salome.  There’s a bleakness, even nihilism, to these people hiding from death, finding escapism in a story that is equally obsessed with death as well as burgeoning sexuality, but it’s an idea I found completely convincing.  That said, there were quite a few questions raised along the way that I’m not sure were resolved.  Who was Jochanaan and his connection to the others, for instance?  Or, why re-enact the story of Salome in particular – was there an undercurrent of abuse in this closed environment?

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

That said, the psychological insight that Warlikowski found in the wealth of action on stage was staggering – even if the full reality of this imagery only becomes apparent later on.  The way that the Page grieved over Narraboth became less a theatrical act and more an unbearable sense of coming to terms with imminent mortality.  Similarly, the bloodied figure who returned after what is normally Jochanaan’s execution, instead represented the initial attack against the forces of imminent murder.  Warlikowski ends with a closing tableau of such overwhelming power, one that had harrowing impact, particularly so seeing this staging in Munich, a city where so many horrors took place.  It was unfortunate then, that a male audience member chose to boo as soon as the music ended, breaking the moment with a blast of hostile negativity, showing a complete lack of respect to the performers and his fellow audience members attempting to come to terms with the imagery.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Warlikowski expects a lot of his singers, in particular Marlis Petersen’s Salome who was indefatigable from beginning to end, running around, pushing tables, and apparently engaging in a Zumba class with a deathly figure during the dance.  I’m somewhat conflicted about Petersen’s vocal performance.  She definitely sang the role, using her own technique, never succumbing to the temptation to push or force.  The text was always clear.  And yet, the voice is much lighter than those who have essayed the role in the past.  As an acclaimed interpreter of Zerbinetta, it felt that during her confession of lust to Jochanaan, she was about to break into ‘Großmächtige Prinzessin’.  Her long, silvery floated lines higher up were impressive, but the final scene felt contained, not quite soaring in gory ecstasy.  She was helped by Kirll Petrenko’s exceptionally singer-friendly conducting, always keeping the orchestral tumult down and letting Petersen through.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Wolfgang Koch was an implacable Jochanaan, a little discoloured on top with the vibrations loosening somewhat, but still very much sung off the text.  Pavol Breslik brought mellifluous, easy lyricism to Narraboth’s music.  Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke also sounded lighter than other interpreters of his role we’ve heard in the past, but his Herodes was keenly sung in his sandy tenor, the text nicely forward.  Michaela Schuster’s Herodias was deliciously raucous, ready to sacrifice beauty of tone to portray her character, sung in a massive mezzo.  Rachael Wilson’s complex mezzo with a resonant bottom and good sheen was well-matched to the role of the Page.  The remainder of the cast exemplified the excellent standards of the house, with a special mention for Kristof Klorek’s exceptionally handsome bass as the Erster Soldat.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

The Bayerisches Staatsorchester was on magnificent form for Petrenko.  It certainly felt like the played the work flawlessly tonight.  Petrenko kept the textures light and transparent, bringing out a wealth of detail not usually heard, with filigree winds, strings exploiting a remarkable depth of colour, and brass that took us to stare deep into the pits of hell.  Attack was as sharp, and unanimous, as an executioner’s axe.  Petrenko’s tempi felt very swift and fluid, never sagging, even when keeping the volume down to allow the singers through.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

This was perhaps ultimately a somewhat mixed evening.  There was much to admire in Petersen’s Salome, even if the voice lacked the heft and metal the role needs.  She was given a massive ovation by the Munich public.  The remaining roles were extremely well taken, as one would expect in this, one of the world’s very greatest lyric theatres.  It was sensationally played by the house band and well conducted by their chief.  What will stay with me, though, is Warlikowski’s deeply insightful and overwhelming psychological thriller of a staging, one that revealed itself slowly, that challenged our preconceptions of what was real and what wasn’t, leaving this spectator completely devastated at the end.

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