Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Volksoper lifts the veil on its new Salome

Volksoper, 08/11/2011
Morenike Fadayomi | Salome
Sebastian Holecek | Jochanaan
Andreas Conrad | Herod
Irmgard Vilsmaier | Herodias
Vincent Schirrmacher | Narraboth
Lysianne Tremblay | Page to Herodias
Roland Böer | Conductor
Marguerite Borie | Director

It’s a hundred years since Richard Strauss made his Volksoper conducting debut with Salome, an anniversary which is being commemorated with the first new staging in Vienna for almost forty years. Well not quite so new, as Marguerite Borie’s production has already been seen in Liège and Monte Carlos, where it garnered mixed reviews. But for a Konzept based on just the one idea I think it actually works rather well.

The moon, cistern, palace and preschool nativity play costumes have been conceded as sops to traditionalists, so Borie’s big idea resides solely in the Personenregie and is mediated through the billowing shawls – for fun, let’s call them veils – which the entire cast is kitted out with. When they are removed, and by whom, means something. Put like that it doesn’t sound too far removed from debagging and I would advise anybody planning to see this production to avoid Borie’s artless programme notes (as this production originated in France, she’s making a point about burqas). Borie is far from her own best advocate and engages with the music and text in more subtle ways than she lets on. The only obvious unveilings are Salome of Herod, as he dumbly lets his munificence get the better of him, and Salome’s at the very end rather than during the dance. Elsewhere, Narraboth’s suicide is as shocking as usual but a great deal less senseless: there’s some lead-in begun at an apt point in the score, for which he lies down and gradually lowers his veil into the cistern, having absorbed the Page’s warnings and realised it’s too late. There’s yet more symbolism after his death as the body gets covered up with a voluminous amount of fabric. It’s all seems a bit excessive until Herod stumbles upon the corpse without it seeming at all contrived. Earlier Narraboth gets caught up in Jochanaan’s veil as Salome manipulates it, and there’s some neat veil choreography between the Jews and Nazarenes (solid work here and in Salome’s dance from choreographer Darren Ross). There’s even a comedy veiling when Jochanaan covers his head in response to Salome obsessing over his hair. The only character in full possession of her own veil is of course Herodias, who doesn’t hold much truck with symbolism. As a Konzept it’s nothing too revelatory or daring, but there are some striking images and the blocking is effective. Reading the obvious into the unveilings works perfectly coherently and yet there’s just enough ambiguity to have some fun attaching one’s own (forgive the pun) layers of meaning.

Musically things weren’t at all bad, and I was seeing the second cast (I couldn’t make it to any of Annemarie Kremer’s dates but don’t think I’ve missed out on much; incidentally all the photos show Kremer). Morenike Fadayomi got some good reviews when she sang the role earlier this year at the Komische Oper, which I’d say were well-earned. There’s not a huge amount of character to her voice but she knows how to use it well, shifting around her range with ease and bringing a quiet intensity to the stiller moments and full, well-supported tone to everything else. She flagged a bit around the half-way point and sang Silberschlüssel (silver key) a couple of times, but recovered to deliver a chilling ‘Ich will den Kopf des Jochanaan’ and remained in strong voice through to the end. The other standout performance was Vincent Schirrmacher’s Narraboth, sung sensitively and freely with lyric, plangent tone. I found Andreas Conrad’s Herod a bit hoarse, but he sang an unctuous ‘Tanz für mich, Salome’ and cut a credibly pathetic figure once he realised he’d been relieved of his veil. Sebastian Holecek’s blustery Jochanaan sounded a better in the cistern than out of it: there was a rounded, deep bellow to his lower register which echoed well but everything in his upper range was shouted. Irmgard Vilsmaier was a cutting, plain-spoken Herodias who, quite rightly, avoided sounding like a hysterical harpy. Supporting roles were all good.

I’m sure Strauss got them in 1911, but this time around the Volksoper didn’t assemble quite the full orchestral forces required. What they had in the pit was however plenty loud enough and barring occasional scrappiness, playing was good with some excellent solos. Conductor Roland Böer gave a fluid account of the score, drawing a richly textured and unblurred response from the orchestra.

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