So, as the effective last gasp of his sesquicentenary celebrations – which really should have run to something a little more out-of-the-ordinary – Strauss’ terrible twins fetch up in tandem, on consecutive nights at the Albert Hall, the former given by the forces of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, and the latter by the BBC itself. In Salome’s case at least, this was a much-delayed Proms debut for the whole opera – Elektra has been performed complete in Kensington Gore before – though there have been various accounts of the Schlussszene over the years, most recently in 2007, with Deborah Voigt. I may as well say at the outset that it is many years indeed since I attended an opera performance at which the capacity audience not only held its collective breath, making not a peep of extraneous sound for the work’s entire duration, but also seemed to be straining forward in an act of communal concentration so intense that considerations of time and space seemed to dissolve altogether, an extraordinary achievement in an unfocussed barn, both visually and acoustically, such as the RAH.

 Of course, the indisputable star-turn and box-office draw in Salome was Nina Stemme, who duly delivered vocally in a way that the last two Salomes heard at Covent Garden – Nadja Michael and Angela Denoke, the latter twice over, most unnecessarily – so utterly failed to do. Whereas last time out Denoke’s whole body visibly shook with the effort of trying, and invariably failing, to crank out the various high Bs and B-flats – the role’s upper limit, by the way, which is why hopeful mezzos have often thought they could manage to sing it, usually unwisely – Ms. Stemme simply lets fly with her force-of-nature soprano, nailing the money notes with a fullness, accuracy and beauty I haven’t heard since Nilsson and Caballé in the late 60s/early 70s (Mattila’s typically all-in latter-day assumption is a tad scattershot in comparison voice-wise, though theatrically in a class of its own).

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It’s just as well Ms. Stemme really did give us something very special in the closing scene, because earlier on she had come perilously close to being upstaged in her own opera by her stage mother, Doris Soffel, who sang a Herodias of such astonishing power, richness, precision and dramatic presence as to be scarcely credible coming from someone who’s been performing professionally non-stop since 1972, and who was last seen at Covent Garden – to our utter loss and their everlasting shame – more than thirty years ago. From the moment she sashayed on, in a floaty red-and-black number, it was clear that she was completely in her element. Thereafter, she dominated, both vocally and dramatically, in a way that I don’t recall any Herodias I’ve ever encountered before doing quite so comprehensively or to such thrilling effect. Imagine a woman (at least) as strikingly handsome as Waltraud Meier, say, with regal bearing and the relaxation born of complete theatrical mastery, not to mention a voice with not a scratch or wobble anywhere audible in it, and you get some idea of what Doris Soffel is like. She even did something I have longed to see a Herodias do – either because she was left to her own devices or just perhaps was coaxed to do so by the credited “semi-staging” director Justin Way (who looked after the 2010 revival at the ROH) – which is suddenly to prick up her ears and take a great deal of notice of Herod’s attempt to talk Salome out of having the Baptist’s head by bribing her with the promise of jewels even her mother knows nothing about. I can’t tell you how many staged Salomes I’ve sat through where Herodias at this point is either abstractedly fingering the Page or staring into space because she isn’t singing. Here, instead, in a semi-staging, this Herodias took on the mimetic aspect of a woman who very insistently wanted to know WHAT jewels, WHY this was the first she’d ever heard of them, and WHERE were they? Brilliantly done, hilariously funny.

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Similarly, Ms.Stemme made much of the purely visual aspects of her characterisation, although in this context I have to say that I thought it a mistake for her to leave the stage during the Dance of the Seven Veils, and even more of one not to have some kind of prop to apostrophise at the end, filling in for Jokanaan’s head ( a melon under a plain tea-towel on a silver platter would do nicely: I don’t require the obligatory gallons of gore and dangling ganglia we’re nowadays compelled to gawk at). And she, more than any Salome I’ve seen, really relished the spiteful snottiness of the closing scene, spitting out “Diese Scharlachnatter usw” as I’ve always longed to hear it, but never have. On top of which she was both fearless and tireless, to the very end. Small wonder her reception was cataclysmic.

 Samuel Youn, currently Bayreuth’s preferred Dutchman and presumably Wotan-in-Waiting, sang Jokanaan. The voice is smooth and evenly emitted: but it is both light, without much heft or body, and quite lacking in the extremities at either end of his bass-baritone part as written, so that there was an entirely foreseeable catastrophe on the high F in “Siehe, der TAG ist nahe” which would have perhaps mattered less if he’d been, as prescribed, offstage in the cistern rather than very visibly perched up in the organ loft. As it happens, by dint of sheer and highly commendable will-power, he sang straight through the cringe-making crack he’d emitted on the note, kept going through a sort of gargle – agony, this – and eventually nailed it as a rather late musical afterthought. His soon-thereafter decapitation seems a little severe, but on balance not entirely unmerited. Where is Terfel when we need him?

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I thought the two Nazarenes were relatively weak: but the five Jews were a feisty lot, and hammered out their theological ensemble in fine style; whilst the two soldiers – Marko Mimica and Tobias Kehrer – and the Cappodocian – Seth Carico – were uniformly excellent, any one of whom sounded more like a real Jokanaan to me than Youn did. There was a decent Narraboth from Thomas Blondelle and a fine, wonderfully characterised Herod from Burkhard Ulrich – who’d be a tenor in a Strauss opera – lacking only the last ounce of juice and vocal altitude to make his assumption perfect (but then, I saw Vickers do it in Paris in the 1970s, which rather spoils you for whoever comes after). Unfortunately, Ulrich forgot to sing his line “Du siehst, wie du diese deiner Tochter erzogen hast!” – “See how you’ve brought your daughter up!” – thus muffing Herodias’ response, who therefore didn’t know whether to jump in or not, with “Dein Vater war Kameltreiber!” – “Your father was a camel-driver” – quite the funniest line in the whole opera, and one with which, properly set-up, I’ve no doubt La Soffel could have brought the house down. No matter: the interaction between Mr. and Mrs. Herod was as good – no, better – than I’ve ever seen in an actual staging of the opera, to the point that I sat there thinking (not for the first time) “What price directors?” Singers of this degree of experience, intelligence and stage-savvy can work it all out for themselves, unhindered by “concepts” or the dreary and irrelevant reliance on endless distractions amongst the extras and/or the scenery. And just to spread a thick bit of jam on the excellence of the musical proceedings, the Page was most sumptuously sung by a superb Afro-American mezzo called Ronnita Miller, who I would be very happy indeed to encounter as Amneris any day (the thought of her squaring off against, say, Latonia Moore’s Aida fills me with delight just thinking about it).

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I can’t say I thought Donald Runnicles brought anything special to the opera, for all that he did at least bring the 105 players Strauss specifies, not something Covent Garden has bothered with in either this or indeed any other large-scale Strauss opera for at least fifteen years. He lacks rhythmic drive, and is inclined to let chording be a tad soft. Whiplash energy and knife-edge precision pay huge dividends in this neck of the repertory, but weren’t much on display here, I thought. But the band of his Deutsche Oper did what was asked of them, and gave a perfectly decent and ripely sonorous, if hardly thrilling, account of the score.

 Oddly, much the same can be said of the following night’s Elektra, which featured some very high profile singers, most of whom delivered the goods, but seemed rather short on energy, this time due to Semyon Bychkov’s characteristic – and in my view dramatically thoroughly debilitating – tendency to slam on the brakes and milk this or that purple passage to death in a manner completely alien to Strauss’ evident intentions. He did the same thing earlier this year at the ROH with his earnestly plodding account of Die Frau ohne Schatten, and I just wish he’d listen to recordings by such “hands-off” Straussians as Karl Böhm, Rudolf Kempe and Wolfgang Sawallisch – not to mention the composer himself – in order to learn how the music “goes” and what real Straussian Schwung sounds like. Moreover, you’d be looking in vain tonight for any of the blood-soaked, hair-raising terror Solti and Kleiber used to bring to this, of all scores. And like the Berlin band from the night before, the BBC SO here played very decently, without evident mishap and much corporate skill, but equally without any great sense of knife-edge dramatic tension which could only come from idiomatically inspired leadership, which Bychkov’s is, in my view, most certainly not. And he allowed all the usual wretched cuts, including the barbarous excision of most of what can only be called Elektra’s seduction of her sister, not to mention taking what little was left of it at a snail’s crawl. Who knows, if he just got on with it, and minimised the mush he might even find room to perform the whole score in less time than it currently takes him to grind out the cut one.

 Christine Goerke sang Elektra just as she did at the ROH a year ago. To my mind, the voice is too pyramidal, with a very secure, large base alas shrinking and shrinking the higher it goes, leaving too much that is very pinched indeed right at the top, at exactly the point where it needs to broaden out. Quite why we don’t get to hear the astonishing Evelyn Herlitzius in the role – or better yet, the even more thrillingly secure Lise Lindstrom – I have no idea: and I would have thought that the Proms ought to have given us here in London someone new to us in the role. Of course, Goerke’s stage experience counts for much in her heroically-scaled performance – she must have walked miles back and forth across the width of the RAH’s platform tonight, which was, unlike last night, an entirely score-free affair – but it’s ultimately for me her voice that simply isn’t big enough, or at least isn’t big enough in the right places, to carry complete conviction in the role.

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metelektr1209BThe other known quantity tonight was Felicity Palmer’s Klytemnestra, a wholly successful assumption sung with remarkably little evidence of either strain or the depredations of age and use. Even so, in the great mother/daughter confrontation that sits at the heart of this terrifying piece, I found myself wishing very intensely that last night’s Salome and Herodias were singing it instead: I can sort of hear in my mind’s ear how Stemme and Soffel (in particular) would handle the scene – both of them with far greater vocal resources at their seemingly effortless disposal than Goerke and Palmer – and can’t help thinking that a tremendous opportunity has been lost. Ah well..

 Gun-Brit Barkmin – German, despite the name – made her London debut as Chrysothemis. She’s a bit wild, and inclined to chuck herself bodily at notes arms spread wide: but she’s undeniably thrilling, and in many ways impressive. I just remember how, 25 and more years ago, I saw a new staging in Paris, with Behrens and Christa Ludwig, and a debutante in the role of Chrysothemis, Nadine Secunde. Barkmin strongly reminds me of her (not least in her tendency to sing her sister off the stage at every opportunity): there’s the same piercing silver glint in the timbre, the same raw, emotional edge. But is was threshold-of-feasibility stuff for Secunde even then: and she paid a terrible price for it in terms of vocal wear-and-tear, ending up in no time with a wobble you could drive a coach-and-four straight through without touching the sides. And I’m afraid that’s exactly what I hear in Ms. Barkmin’s assumption now, the same sense of a voice pushed beyond its natural limits. I greatly doubt she’ll still be singing this steadily in as little as three years’ time if she carries on with this kind of Jugend Dramatische repertory.

 Johan Reuter repeated his familiar Orestes: again, good without being particularly commanding. And there was – as there so often is – a rather rough-and-ready Aegisthus, in the shape of Robert Künzli, whose tenor has probably seen better days (though his death cries were excellent, unlike those of Klytemnestra, performed by an offstage “screamer” rather than Dame Felicity herself, and wholly lacking in any sense of death rattle or frisson). The five maids who open the work were good, both as a group and individually, especially the luscious mezzo of Katarina Bradič as First Maid, though the normally- resplendent, Chrysothemis-in-waiting Fifth Maid didn’t register quite so well. Miranda Keys looked and sounded an Overseer to the life. I’d report on the neat contributions of Klytemnestra’s Train-bearer and Confidante but for the fact that the programme reprehensibly chose to omit them from the cast list, as it also did the Old Servant, though the Young One was duly credited. Go figure.

 Justin Way’s semi-staging rang the bells on his previous night’s Salome only insofar as we were vouchsafed a couple of benches on either side of the platform: otherwise it was much the same, without any meaningful costuming and no props whatsoever, mainly confining itself to organising entrances and exits through as many different staircases as possible. But it remains a perfectly serviceable vehicle for the presentation of great singing, something rather more in evidence last night than on this.

Stephen Jay-Taylor

Salome 4 stars

Elektra 3 stars

Photos: 1. Stemme as Salome – Teatro Real – Javier del Real

              2. Soffel as Herodias – Baden-Baden – Andrea Kremper

              3. Youn as Joachanaan – Koeln – Klaus Lefebvre

              4. Burkhard as Mime – Bayreuth – Enrico Nawrath

               5. Goerke as Elektra – Royal Opera House – Clive Barda

               6. Palmer as Klytemnestra – The Met – Marty Sohl

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