Librettist: Richard Strauss
Orchestre de Paris
Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher
Producer/Director: Andrea Breth
Elsa Dreisig: Salome
Gábor Bretz: Jonathan
John Daszak: Herodes
Angela Denoke: Heradias
Since it is always best to consider the cup half-full, I decided to make the most of my half-sister’s wedding as soon as it was made clear to me that there was no escaping it. So if I had to be in Lyon on July 9, I figured that I might as well stop in Aix-en-Provence to meet with my mom and at least enjoy one event of its prestigious annual Festival international d’art lyrique (International Festival of Lyrical Art), which this year happened to kick off on July 4, right after having treated myself to an extended Italo-French trip to get there because, why not?
Back in the lovely Provençal town that was my temporary home last year, although in a different apartment, having learned the hard way last summer that, without the benefit of a lockdown, the historic center is not exactly conducive to a restful stay, I happily reconnected with beloved places and people, never mind that the temperatures were slowly but surely climbing to decidedly uncomfortable heights.
All the more reason to feel fortunate that the performance of Salome would take place in the blissfully air-conditioned and acoustically satisfying Grand Théâtre de Provence, or “GTP” for the locals. Even better, it would start at the totally civilized time of 8:30 PM and, thanks to Strauss’ compact and intermission-free score, and would end a mere 100 minutes later, all but guaranteeing an evening of exciting musical revelry and still enough beauty sleep.
Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s French play by the same name, which involved a virtuous prophet, a horny teenager and a hornier king in biblical times, boasting Hedwig Lachmann’s faithful German translation and Richard Strauss’ formidable musical score, Salome the opera needs no introduction. Instantly igniting scandals, as well as huge popular successes, wherever it was performed, when it was not outright banned, the story’s tantalizing mix of eroticism, religion and death has always proven hard to resist, so these days most of us don’t, as the almost sold-out audience on Wednesday night could attest.
Salome being a complex character for whom Strauss composed a particularly daunting part, one of the main challenges of any production is by default to find a singer with an unusual amount of singing and acting skills, not to mention power and resilience. Enter Elsa Dreisig, a young but already highly regarded French-Danish soprano, who at first may have seemed like a puzzling choice to many connoisseurs since her background is more Mozartian than Wagnerian.
But that’s the thing: Her incredibly agile and deeply lyrical voice, combined with her angelic blond hair and a virginal white slip dress, turned out to be the perfect fit for the young, innocent, unwittingly seductive and quickly overwhelmed teenager she is actually supposed to be. And if you assumed she was too unexperimented to handle the role, just go and watch her tear through the last monologue. Suffice to say, Oscar Wilde would have been mightily pleased. And so would Richard Strauss.
The object of her obsession, the striking and unattainable prophet Jochanaan, was winningly interpreted by physically and vocally blessed Hungarian bass Gábor Bretz, whose magnetic presence and commanding singing easily overcame the limitations of his main stations, which essentially consisted in being half-way buried in the cracked ground or beheaded on the banquet table à la Da Vinci’s Last Supper meets Magritte.
British tenor John Daszak was in charge of the other man in Salome’s life, her lecherous and spineless step-father Herodes, and he did not hesitate to go the extra mile to come up with a memorable king in no small part owing to his natural poise and flawless diction.
Not to be outdone, German soprano Angela Denoke, a former Salome herself, was a resolutely determined Herodias, Herodes’ unapologetic sister-in-law and then wife, whose dark looks and venomous singing brought another bit of ominousness to the already unsavory proceedings.
The uniformly impressive cast was completed by a wide-ranging cohort of highly competent singers, who all immensely contributed to the high quality of the musical output.
As for the visual output, German director Andrea Breth had clearly rejected any possible hint of orientalism and boldly gone German expressionism instead, and I got to admit that her rigorously black-and-white, cleverly surrealist vision, which included a magnificent moon, refined costumes, stunning lighting effects, as well as stylized gestures straight out of silent movies and old photographs, had a lot going for it. Quite a few of those tableaux were in fact downright arresting in their genuine inventiveness when depicting the hopelessly decadent milieu and the awfully thorny relationships.
The devil, however, is often in the details, and some of them were just not up to par. Call me old-fashioned if you want, but to me, the main issue was the dance of the seven veils or, more precisely, the lack of it. While Breth should be commended for trying something different, her four ersatz Salomes engaged in various encounters with Jochanaan or Narraboth while the real Salome was lying on the banquet table were more mystifying than enlightening. And while a white-tiled bathroom kind of makes sense when a cold environment is called for, I found it much too aseptic for the highly dramatic last scene. On the other hand, Jochanaan’s head stayed in its bucket for the occasion, a little favor I was most grateful for.
Richard Strauss’ Salome is famous not only for its sordid plot, but also for its sumptuous score and the huge orchestra it takes to bring it to life. That did not seem to be a problem for the Orchestre de Paris though, as they sounded in splendid form and happy to tackle a masterful serving of unapologetically opulent late Romanticism. They were confidently conducted by German maestro Ingo Metzmacher, who brilliantly managed to convey the composition’s relentless intensity while still bringing out its subtle colors and organic beauty, making sure to always support and not overwhelm Dreisig’s lighter voice.
When all had been said and done, the curtain rose again to give Dreisig her moment in the spotlight, and the entire audience spontaneously joined in to give her the thunderous ovation she so rightfully deserved. The production team received less unanimously positive feedback, but the mood remained festive regardless. Even better, we had an enjoyable walk back to our temporary home in an Aix that was not even close to being ready to go to sleep yet.