Family Trauma: Salome from the Teatro alla Scala

Strauss – Salome

Herodes – Gerhard Siegel
Herodias – Linda Watson
Salome – Elena Stikhina
Jochanaan – Wolfgang Koch
Narraboth – Attilio Glaser
Ein Page der Herodias – Lioba Braun
Erster Jude – Matthäus Schmidlechner
Zweiter Jude – Matthias Stier
Dritter Jude – Patrick Vogel
Vierter Jude – Thomas Ebenstein
Fünfter Jude – Andrew Harris
Erster Nazarener – Thomas Tatzl
Zweiter Nazarener – Manuel Walser
Erster Soldat – Sorin Coliban
Zweiter Soldat – Chang Sejong
Ein Kappadozier – Paul Grant

Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala / Riccardo Chailly.
Stage director – Damiano Michieletto.  Video director – Arnalda Canali.

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy.  Saturday, February 20th, 2021.  Streamed via Raiplay.

This staging of Salome by Damiano Michieletto was to have premiered at the Scala last season.  Sadly, it was cancelled due to the then unfolding sanitary situation, but fortunately the Scala took the decision to produce it and broadcast it this month via Rai 5 to a house without an audience.  With a Straussian-sized band and the need to maintain distancing, the orchestra took over what appeared to be the entirety of the Platea, although the cast on stage appeared to be performing the production exactly as it was conceived with no masks worn and characters clearly engaging with each other.  With the lack of an audience in the house, Arnalda Canali’s video direction made much use of close-ups of the cast members, although I must admit to wishing she had given us more of an impression of the stage as a whole at times.  It was fluently directed but one left with a sense that one may have missed out on some of the detail.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

This impression was especially confounded due to Michieletto’s highly detailed staging and direction.  His is an interpretation that focuses on ambiguity and domestic tragedy.  Each of the central trio of Herodes, Herodias and Salome herself have a troubling past – Herodias appears to have had a role in her late husband’s death, Herodes’ abuse of Salome is heavily intimated, and Salome lives with the direct result of the trauma of her father’s death and her abuse at the hands of Herodes.  Michieletto also gives us tantalizing hints of where we are in time.  Are we seeing Salome as a young woman recalling her childhood?  The presence of a younger girl in the same dress suggests that.  Or are we watching an older Salome recalling her younger self reliving her childhood?  The constant presence of the Page on stage, announcing something terrible about to happen could in fact be an older Salome.  Or it could be the housekeeper living with the knowledge of horrors in the house, yet unable to do anything to prevent them.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

I found Michieletto’s quite dispassionate and ambiguous treatment of the narrative to be utterly compelling.  Particularly so as Salome lusted after a Jochanaan who may have had more in common with her father than might first appear.  Michieletto had Wolfgang Koch’s Jochanaan damning Salome while standing atop a plinth with the name Herodes Philippus on it.  By setting out this darkness that lies below the surface of family life, the demons within, Michieletto makes us question what would help us to cope with horrors at home.  Would it be religious imagery: the dead lamb, the cup of blood, or the head of Jochanaan looking as it had been brought straight over from one of the local catholic churches?  Or would it be the winged angels, portending a different place, perhaps imminent death.  He achieves this through some stunning stage pictures – including during the dance as Salome loses herself in a dress that appears to be dripping fabric streams of blood.  So much is intimated, so much is suggested. Michieletto makes us think and makes each audience member find their own reading in what they see.  This is highly intelligent music theatre.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

The impression of a great evening was compounded by Riccardo Chailly’s conducting and a Scala orchestra on sensational form.  Chailly conjured a wealth of orchestral colour from the band – silky strings, piquant winds, brass calling from the deepest cistern.  With the benefit of the cast being closely miked, Chailly was able to allow the orchestral textures to ring out thrillingly.  I should probably apologize to the neighbours at this point, but it was too good not to pump up the volume.  His tempi felt exactly right, the dance had just the kind of seductive swing to make it even more harrowing in combination with the stage pictures, and the final scene was taken at a more flowing pace than usual.  Chailly also brought out so much detail in the scoring, magnified thanks to the exceptional quality of the playing, and apparent even over the small screen.  In the house, it must have been overwhelming.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Vocally, it was superb with one major reservation.  That was Elena Stikhina’s Salome.  Stikhina has the ideal voice for the role.  It came across as being of a good size, bright and luminous, and soared with ease in that expansive final scene.  She also attacked those low-lying lines with confidence.  She’s an engaging actor and threw herself fully into Michieletto’s conception of the role.  Yet her singing was robbed of its impact by her extremely disappointing German diction.  She had clearly internalized the text and there were a few moments when it was clear.  Otherwise, it was frequently hard to discern whether she was singing in Russian or German and as a result, rendered it hard for Stikhina to colour the line through the text, to make us believe in what she was singing.  It’s exceptionally disappointing because she has a very fine technique and the voice is impressive.  But there’s a lot of work to be done there.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

This impression was heightened because otherwise the quality of the diction in the remainder of the cast was superb.  Gerhard Siegel was a fascinating Herodes, truly sung off the text in his bright, well-focused tenor.  Linda Watson was a Herodias big of voice and of personality, the top ringing out where so many before have sounded quite short.  Wolfgang Koch brought his now familiar Jochanaan to the production.  As always with Koch, the voice was utterly firm, the registers even and it sounded like it would have created quite a substantial sound in the house.  Attilio Glaser sang an ardent and warmly lyrical Narraboth, with genuine ease in the higher reaches of the part.  Lioba Braun, herself a noted Herodias, was luxury casting as the Page.  She sang with impeccable clarity of text, her orange-toned mezzo steady of tone with registers even, and she was a haunting presence on stage as a woman who had seen much but had been unable to do anything.  The remainder of the cast was at the level one would expect at this legendary address.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

This was a thrilling evening and, as so often these days, induced regret that one was not able to be live in the house to experience this highly intelligent staging in full and the sound of Chailly’s magnificent orchestra in full flight.  Michieletto gives us a staging that makes us reflect on the damage caused by family life and the actions of parents, one that made us think and search for our own truth in what we saw.  Perhaps in the flesh, the lack of clarity in Stikhina’s diction might not have bothered as much, but she’s certainly the owner of an exceptional instrument.  The Scala had cast this production from strength and thanks are due to them and to Rai for making it available to a wide audience.  Even with that big reservation, this is an evening that needs to be seen.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

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