BBC Prom 58: Strauss – Salome

Posted: September 2, 2014


Prom 58 (Saturday 30th August) presented the first of the two dedicated Richard Strauss operas to celebrate his 150th anniversary. The Royal Albert Hall held its premiere of the complete 100 piece opera, Salome conducted by Donald Runnicles with the Deutsche Oper Berlin who also made their debut at the Proms.

Strauss was absorbed by Oscar Wilde’s French play Succès de Scandale (1891), which drew him to compose this seductively rich and lustful opera tainted with themes of obsession, biblical precedence and, more scandalously, necrophilia. Salome’s blasphemous and sexual nature caused a gigantic stir in the opera world at its premiere in 1905.

Tonight’s performance of Strauss’ fairy tale music was performed with vigour, power and effervescence. Deutsche Oper Berlin was sheer gold, already fully acquainted with the German composer’s work, whilst Runnicles honed in, bounced around and flaunted the musical genius’s detailed and complicated masterpiece.

From the outset, chords from the strings and wind instruments (and celesta) bedazzled the audience. The discordant scales and clarinet solos resemble Salome’s turbulent and emotionally volatile character, which is heavily imprinted in the score. The opera is exquisitely complete with the famous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ a mesmerising song filled with fantasy embellishments that is wonderful in its own right.

Every detail feels purposely crafted. For example, three notes by double bass cellos portray Jokanaan’s head being cut off by the executioner, and ominous earthly bass notes denote Salome’s sadistic obsession with the bloody head of a prophet, where the RAH’s lofty organ managed to boast its worth.

Swedish soprano, Nina Stemme, took to the stage in a stately fashion, as if she owned it. Having sung Salome’s role previously in Stockholm and Zurich, as well as embodying the stamina and vocal clarity of Brünnhilde from Wager’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (which she performed at last year’s Proms), it is no coincidence that she made the evening even more complete.

Doris Soffel as Herodias wore a shimmering scarlet robe that couldn’t be missed, and also brought life to the stage with her hysterical laughter and queen-like stature in voice and confidence. Both Stemme and Soffel lit up the stage, with their vocal tenacity fitting for the size and acoustic quality of the RAH.

However, neither Burkhard Ulrich as Herod, nor Thomas Blondelle as Narraboth had memorised all their lines, with the former having to resort to the libretto in front of him. With enthusiastic body language in a stationary position, there was a lecherous Herod that Ulrich wanted to uncover and although sung as best he could, the music drowned him out at times.

Samuel Youn as Jokanaan had a deep momentous voice to accompany the resounding and solemn music that Strauss would have wanted. However, moving from organ loft to stage caused him to lose it and vocally choke at one point when he couldn't keep up with the musical climax.  He was subtly handed a cup of water by a steward.

Although, stage directed by Justin Way, there was no creative set or stage props required, as Prom 58 focussed on the voices and musical score. At its first rehearsal in 1903, Strauss told the orchestra: “Gentlemen, there are no difficulties or problems. This opera is a scherzo with a fatal conclusion!”, and just like the past, Strauss would have been very pleased with this evening's devoted and assiduous performance.

Read more posts by Mary Nguyen here, including other reviews of the BBC Proms, and follow her on Twitter @MaryGNguyen