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Reviewed by:
  • Salome
  • Micaela K. Baranello (bio)
Richard Strauss : Salome
  • Salzburger Osterfestspiele, Großes Festspielhaus

  • Production premiere: April 21, 2011

  • Performance reviewed: April 21, 2011

  • Orchestra: Berlin Philharmonic

  • Conductor: Sir Simon Rattle

  • Production: Stefan Herheim

  • Set Design: Heike Scheele

  • Costumes: Gesine Völlm

  • Dramaturgy: Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach

  • Video: fettFilm

  • Lighting Design: Joachim Klein

  • Salome: Emily Magee

  • Herodes: Stig Andersen

  • Herodias: Hanna Schwarz

  • Jochanaan: Iain Paterson

  • Narraboth: Pavol Breslik

  • Page: Rinat Shaham

Staging Richard Strauss's Salome means visualizing a world whose externalities are never objectively defined and whose characters cannot agree on what they see. The text presents its audience not with a concrete reality but a shifting mosaic of perceptions and impressions.1 But portraying an unstable visual field in a visual art such as stage production is a formidable challenge, and directors have tended to dodge these issues. Most often they resort to salaciousness, giving us a group of diseased, often drunken neurotics and an atmosphere tinged with exoticism that frequently slips into camp (even before reaching the ten-minute striptease and the severed head).2 At the 2011 Salzburger Osterfestspiele, Stefan Herheim's production featured no shortage of debauchery, but it offered new perspectives as well.3

The Norwegian director, now forty-one, first rose to prominence with his lurid and cryptic deconstruction of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the 2003 Salzburger Festspiele (from which the Osterfestspiele is independent, though they use the same performance venues).4 If that production generated shock and noisy controversy, Herheim's subsequent work has been recognized for an intellectual ambition and the use of dazzling stagecraft to convey multiple narrative threads, explore psychological and historical themes, and comment on the work's reception history. His widely acclaimed 2008 Bayreuth Parsifal traced the history of the Wagner-Festspiele along with modern German history itself, while his 2009 production of Der Rosenkavalier in Stuttgart staged a Nietzschean dialectic between a Dionysian Ochs and an Apollonian Octavian (featuring the French Revolution at the end of act 2 and a wandering ostrich representing Strauss himself). He returned to Salzburg with Salome as one of the most acclaimed and [End Page 331] closely watched opera directors working today. Yet only the early Entführung is available on DVD, and he remains little known outside continental Europe and Wagner circles.5

In Der Rosenkavalier, Herheim banished the heavy eighteenth-century surfaces that have dominated the opera's staging history (without entirely abandoning period imagery), and his surreal, fast-paced images seemed to endow it with fresh depth and passion. Salome's staging history has been marked less by stiffness than by gratuitous scandal, but it benefits equally from the thorough rethinking characteristic of Herheim's work.6 As he did in Rosenkavalier, Herheim stages Salome as the product of a fevered fin-de-siècle imagination, an externalization of a controlling fantasy that robs the opera's characters of any independent subjectivity they might have possessed. The wide arena stage of the Großes Festspielhaus appears as a twinkling cosmos, the upper half dominated by a white slice of moon (which doubles as a screen for projected video), the foreground by a giant, mobile, phallic telescope. The stage is uneven and sparkles with glitter, as do the costumes, furthering the image of a starry sky and a fractured, fragmented space. Before the score begins, we see Salome, Herod, and Herodias walking along the upper level of the set, observed by Narraboth through the telescope. It is a visualization of the drama of seeing, controlled by men—seeing in particular the feminine moon, associated with Salome, and, more generally, the exploration of unknown feminine depths.

The Mauerschau aspect of Salome's opening is often considered significant: we hear about Salome and hear Jochanaan's voice long before either character is visible; we experience them through the perception of others.7 Jochanaan's voice, first emerging from the cistern, is kept separate from his body, which will be key in the final tableau. But Herheim extends the Mauerschau's instability to make the entire opera an exercise in the psychological projection of the implied narrator, with Salome as the primary object for his gaze...


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