Lunar Events: Salome at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Strauss – Salome

Herodes – John Daszak
Herodias – Angela Denoke
Salome – Elsa Dreisig
Jochanaan – Gábor Bretz
Narraboth – Joel Prieto
Ein Page der Herodias – Carolyn Sproule
Erster Jude – Léo Vermot-Desroches
Zweiter Jude – Kristofer Lundin
Dritter Jude – Rodolphe Briand
Vierter Jude – Grégoire Mour
Fünfter Jude – Sulkhan Jaiani
Erster Nazarener –
Kristján Jóhannesson
Zweiter Nazarener – Philippe-Nicolas Martin
Erster Soldat – Allen Boxer
Zweiter Soldat – Sulkhan Jaiani
Ein Cappadocier –
Kristján Jóhannesson

Orchestre de Paris / Ingo Metzmacher.
Stage director – Andrea Breth.

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Saturday, July 9th, 2022.

My first visit to the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence was back in 2013 when I came to see Patrice Chéreau’s seminal, and now extremely well-travelled, staging of Elektra, featuring the greatest performance of the title role I have ever had the privilege of seeing.  Nine years later, the festival returned to Strauss, this time with Salome, featuring a rising young star who took some of her earliest operatic steps on these stages.  As was the case back then, the Orchestre de Paris took to the pit, this evening under the direction of Ingo Metzmacher, while the staging was confided to Andrea Breth.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

I must admit to having no idea where to start with Breth’s staging.  Perhaps the most coherent thing I can say about it, is that I left wondering if we had been watching Salome’s dream.  Certainly, the presence of the moon was a reminder of its presence throughout the libretto and the score, and would suggest that Breth was taking us on a nocturnal journey.  Otherwise, what we seemed to get was a series of varying tableaux.  These included an opening tableau redolent of Caspar David Friedrich, or Herodes sitting around a table that looked like The Last Supper – albeit including a Herodias who was caressing the face of a male solider – while Salome sang her final scene in an abattoir carrying around a bucket of blood and addressing her desire to kiss Jochanaan’s mouth into said bucket.  The dance was staged as a group of Salome doubles wandering around the stage, being carried by the delegation of Jews, or a hand emerging from the cistern.  Naturally, Salome wasn’t killed at the end but instead expired on the floor around the bucket.  Herodias also momentarily gyrated randomly while Herodes tried to persuade Salome not to ask for the head.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Within this seemingly random succession of ideas, there were some striking stage pictures, not least how Jochanaan’s head appeared on the table during the dinner scene – in this respect perhaps more of a nightmare rather than a dream.  Similarly, Breth appears to suggest that in her ode to Jochanaan, Salome is experiencing a sexual awakening, particularly in the way that she longingly drapes herself over the entrance to the cistern.  And yet, I have to admit to finding the entire evening rather lacking in a coherent narrative thread, despite the clear physical effort that Elsa Dreisig put into her assumption of Salome.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

This run represents Dreisig’s role debut in this extremely demanding assignment.  She was received with tremendous enthusiasm by the Aix public.  I must admit to having a much more equivocal impression.  Dreisig is the owner of a silvery soprano, bright in tone, and appropriately youthful.  She’s also a highly energetic actor.  And yet, to my ears, this role at this time is a stretch too far for her current vocal estate.  Her ode to Jochanaan emerged through sheer determination, the higher reaches faltering.  By the time we got to the final scene, there was a hardness to the tone, as if singing off the capital rather than the interest, and intonation started to sink.  She had clearly worked hard on the text, but I also left with the impression that she had learned it well but doesn’t, at this point, live it – a comment I have made about her vocalism previously.  This was exemplified by a narrow palette of tone colours, although the tone itself has a pearly beauty that could be well suited to the role.  Dreisig’s assumption led me to recall Marlis Petersen in Munich, another singer with a voice a size or two smaller than one would normally hear in the role.  Yet Petersen is a much more experienced singer who understands what her instrument can do.  Here, I’m not quite convinced that Dreisig has fully mastered how to pace the role. 

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

As a result of accompanying a lighter-voiced Salome, Metzmacher needed to keep the orchestral forces in check for much of the evening.  Unfortunately, this led to a drop in dramatic tension in those places where he had to request them to produce reduced volume.  Where he was able to allow the orchestral sound to bloom, he gained a wide range of orchestral colour from a band on excellent form.  The dance most certainly had swing, frankly I was quite tempted to gyrate in my seat at that point, and when Angela Denoke’s Herodias and John Daszak’s Herodes entered, Metzmacher allowed the orchestral sound to fill the room thrillingly.  The range of colour from silky, seductive strings, to brass ringing out from the pits of hell, was impressive.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Denoke, an experienced Salome herself, sang Herodias in a ripe soprano, with a textual clarity that was extremely impactful.  Daszak sang Herodes in a big, beefy tenor, with an easy top, the words also nicely forward.  Gábor Bretz gave us a Jochanaan in his familiar, velvety bass, the voice utterly firm and handsome from top to bottom, with a touch of metal at the top that was especially striking.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t helped out by Breth’s staging that had him singing from the cistern or from the table facing away from my side of the auditorium, meaning that his singing didn’t have the acoustic impact it could have had.  Joel Prieto sang Narraboth in an attractive tenor, and had clearly worked on the text.  The remainder of the cast again reminded us of the standards expected at this address, with a particular mention for Montréalaise mezzo Carolyn Sproule who sang the Page with a notable ruby red tone, and Kristján Jóhannesson who brought an extremely handsome baritone and textual eloquence to the role of the Erster Nazarener. 

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

This was a somewhat random evening in the theatre.  We were given a production that left me rather mystified as to what it was aiming to say, seemingly providing a series of tableaux that didn’t appear to cohere into a cogent theatrical narrative.  We saw an assumption of the title role that was brave and energetic, but vocally not yet at the point at which the role had been fully mastered by the voice.  The conducting did allow tension to drop to allow the Salome through, but at other points produced a striking range of orchestral colour and a dance of undeniable energy.   As mentioned above, the evening was received with an extremely generous ovation from the Aix public, particularly for Dreisig. 

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