Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Pedro Halffter
Director: Harry Kupfer
Salome: Angela Denoke
Jokanaan: James Rutherford
Herodes: Reiner Goldberg
Herodias: Daniela Denschlag
Berlin was a particularly bitter-sweet last stop on my whirlwind Eastern European tour because while it is a place whose endless possibilities I've always enjoyed exploring, my dear friend Nyla would not be there to join me on either my sightseeing expeditions or cultural outings. Her spacious apartment hadn't changed though, and sure felt like a five-star palace after my ever-shrinking lodgings in the previous cities. Moreover, being on somewhat familiar territory at last allowed for less running around and more relaxation, even if it negated the potent thrill of making brand new discoveries at every corner.
The first opera on my program was Richard Strauss' Salome. After Tosca and Carmen, here came yet another remarkably complicated and powerful female character, one who could actually teach a thing or two about getting what they want to her older fellow opera heroines. Oscar Wilde's play, which was interestingly written in French before being translated into English by the author himself, unsurprisingly did not have an easy time getting produced when it first came out, but has since become a classic. Unfolding in a single act and clocking in under two hours, Richard Strauss' operatic version of it remains faithful to the original explosive mix of biblical, erotic and murderous themes and was going to start my Berlin stay with a fully-loaded punch, back in the Deutsche Staatsoper where last year I saw... Tosca.
As the capricious and iron-willed (always a scary combination) princess, Angela Denoke proved what a formidable force of nature she was under her unassuming small frame. She did not bother trying to make her Salome even remotely sympathetic, but fiercely emphasized the rapidly maturing adolescent's idée fixe of "kissing Jokanaan's mouth". Her incredibly strong, wide-ranging voice accomplished the no small feat of rising above the orchestra and had enough staying power to flawlessly match Strauss' luxuriantly complex score. She perfectly embodied the childish stubbornness and womanly lust that are Salome's calling card, and her last monologue was a truly frightening display of consuming decadence. As for the famed Orient-inspired "Dance of the Seven Veils", probably the most graphically sensual eight minutes in the history of opera, it was as unabashedly suggestive as can be, if not classically graceful, although Angela Denoke did keep a skin-colored body stocking on.
She was more than aptly surrounded by her male partners: James Rutherford, who as the prophet Jokanaan was as charismatic as they come with his powerful presence and stirring voice, and Reiner Goldberg, who fully embodied a pitifully lascivious and feeble-minded Herodes, looking more like a laughable clown than a capable monarch. The only weak link there was Daniela Dengschlag, who in the smaller role of Herodias did not project enough as a singer or an actress to be on a par with her more attention-grabbing partners.
Salome and her dreadfully dysfunctional family are definitely not refined fare, but the opera's sheer madness and glorious crassness are also deliciously beguiling. This production made good use of the composition's strengths by keeping the set grimly simple and focusing on the out-standing music and singing, which is, after all, what opera is primarily about.