BBC Proms 2014: Strauss's Salome

Nina Stemme is an engaging and sympathetic Salome

BBC Proms 2014: Strauss's Salome

In his book The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross pinpoints the arrival of modernism to 1905 and the premiere of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Nothing that followed – from Sibelius to Stockhausen – could have happened without the other-worldly sonorities of Strauss’s erotic masterpiece.

The title role is famously challenging – the soprano who first sang it, Marie Wittich, returned the part to Struass complaining it was ‘unsingable’.

On Saturday night (30 August) the astonishing soprano Nina Stemme not only showed that to be factually inaccurate, she managed to make Strauss’s angular lines sound completely natural. This Salome was engaging and sympathetic, a woman shaped by the amoral court of King Herod, but determined to shape her own life. For Strauss – as for Oscar Wilde, whose play provided the source of the libretto – morality is a slippery concept. Stemme cut her way through the opera creating a coherent character – no mean feat in a role that demands the soprano sing text such as ‘I am amorous of thy body… Thy body is hideous… It is thy hair that I am enamoured… Thy hair is horrible… It is thy mouth I desire.’

Both in Salome’s encounter with Jokanaan (John the Baptist), sung by an imposing Samuel Youn, and in her final scene in which she kisses and sings to the prophet’s severed head, Stemme was astonishing to hear. Her multi-faceted voice was the perfect fit for the web of contradictions that makes up the role of Salome.

The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin played with aplomb, luxuriating in the glorious scrunches of Strauss’s Eastern-infused score. There was the odd balance problem – but that’s hardly surprising given the number of musicians on stage (105!) and the tricky acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. But overall, Runnicles presented a powerful, nuanced sound. In the famous 'Dance of the Seven Veils' the orchestra could finally play without restraint, and the result was thrilling.

In the supporting roles, Doris Soffel created a wonderfully witchy Herodias: had there been scenery, she would have chewed it magnificently. Her Herod – Burkhard Ulrich – was whiny and petulant with an ear for comic timing when, for example, he declares ‘I forbid him to do that’ on learning that the new Messiah is raising the dead.

But this is Salome’s opera and it was Nina Stemme’s night. She brought coherence and focus to a character too often seen as simply deranged and dangerous. Clear your diary for two hours and listen on iPlayer, you won’t be disappointed.


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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