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Friday, May 25, 2012

Opera Review: The Invisible Head

The Cleveland Orchestra mounts Salome at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen
The girl who has everything: soprano Nina Stemme.
Photo © EMI Classics.

The finest opera performance of the spring 2012 season in New York was at Carnegie Hall last night, when the Cleveland Orchestra presented a complete performance of Richard Strauss' Salome, under their music director Franz Welser-Möst.

Salome needs little introduction. Strauss' first successful opera (he used to brag that it paid for his villa) uses the composer's stunning orchestral gifts to bring the story of the Princess Salome and her unhealthy obsession with Jokaanan (John the Baptist) to vivid life. In a concert setting though, the traditional props: Herod's death-ring, the executioner's sword, and the prophet's bloody, severed head are invisible. It is up to the orchestra to tell the story.

Mr. Welser-Möst, who also serves as music director of the Vienna State Opera, accomplished an astonishing effect in this performance. Somehow, his Cleveland players sounded "Viennese", putting a lilt under strings and winds, and driving the work with a light, frothy texture. The big brass themes for Jokaanan (John the Baptist) were played with sonorous beauty, and the vague Orientalisms of the Dance of the Seven Veils appeared in sharp relief.

Unusually, this concert performance placed the singers on risers above the huge orchestra, with all of the principles at stage right and minor characters on the left. This allowed for a the natural sound production of the opera house in a concert environment, and kept the performers visually separate from the orchestral players.

Nina Stemme didn't just sing--she embodied the title role, meeting the opera's exacting requirements with a huge instrument that proved capable of soaring heights and spine-tingling lows. This was the heroic soprano voice that New Yorkers have been starving for: real singing, thrillingly delivered with no compression or spreading above or below the stave.

Ms. Stemme sat still and composed for the famous Dance, but every other part of the character was there. Ms. Stemme charted the princess' course from girlish curiosity to bloody depravity, flirting with her eyes and using her hands expressively to conjure the severed head of Jokaanan from mere air. The final peroration to that invisible object, played so often for grisly effect on stage, made one realize that the princess was trapped by her own twisted desires in an emotional cul-de-sac.

As the object of that desire, bass-baritone Eric Owens brought a sonorous voice and a larger-than-life presence to the role of Jokaanan. This is a short part, with booming orations that were delivered from off stage right instead of an underground cistern. The weight of the prophet's words were felt with every utterance. Mr. Owens ascended the riser like a scaffold, seeming to have the knowledge of his own impending doom even as he confronted the princess.

Herodes and Herodias are ungratefully written parts. Strauss gave the Tetrarch of Judea some torturous music to sing, and many character tenors shrill through the role. Rudolf Schasching proved an exception, acting with his voice to produce multiple tonalities to portray lust, terror, and finally, homicidal rage. Jane Henschel was a multi-layered Herodias, making this twisted matriarch more than just a nagging shrew. Tenor Garrett Sorenson brought heroic voice to the suicidal Narraboth, coping successfully with the high tessitura of the part.

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