Massenet: Hérodiade

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Massenet
LABELS: Sony
WORKS: Hérodiade
PERFORMER: Renée Fleming, Dolora Zajick, Plácido Domingo, Juan Pons, Kenneth Cox; San Francisco Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: S2K 66847 DDD
After languishing in obscurity for the best part of a century, Hérodiade, a version of the Salome story that preceded Strauss’s by 24 years, is enjoying a revival with recent productions in Vienna and San Francisco and two new recordings. As befits this grandest of grand operas, each is starrily cast. Plasson’s interpretation extracts fine, incisive playing from the Toulouse orchestra, has a glorious yet girlish Salomé in Cheryl Studer, an imposing Phanuel in José van Dam and a terrifying, manipulative, lascivious Hérode in Thomas Hampson. But he is let down by Nadine Denize’s unlovely Hérodiade, whose occasional flat notes might be excusable were it not for her strident tone. Ben Heppner’s Jean cannot be faulted technically, but stylistically he is too much of a Heldentenor for this lyric role.

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Domingo’s thrilling account for Sony is, in contrast, all one could wish for. His voice may be less burnished than it was, but in this sort of dramatic part, he remains peerless. The chief delight of the Sony set, however, is Gergiev’s fervent conducting; he reveals textures imperceptible under Plasson and injects a foreboding intensity and fire into the score, which he takes at speed, shaving 12 minutes off Plasson’s running time. Gergiev’s cast is also exemplary: Juan Pons (Hérode) and the bass Kenneth Cox (Phanuel) are better contrasted, and no less impressive than Hampson and Van Dam; Dolora Zajick is a more attractive and therefore more complex Hérodiade; and Renée Fleming a lustrous though uncharismatic Salomé. If there’s a snag, it is that the recording is live and has all the attendant disturbances – rustling costumes, interruptive applause, occasionally uneven sound – but they’re a small price to pay for opera this exciting.