My Favorite Opera DVDs: “Salome”

Götz Friedrich’s monumental television production of Richard Strauss’ greatest opera is now 38 years old. In recent years, some may have passed on it because it is not a live performance (as we are now thoroughly accustomed to) but rather a lip-sync job. But, in my opinion, Friedrich’s Salome is still at the top of the video heap for its extraordinary depth of expression, both musically and visually.

The cast is as good as it gets: a top-of-her-game Teresa Stratas in the title role, Bernd Weikl as Jokanaan, Hans Beirer as Herod, Astrid Varnay as Herodias, and two singers who later rose to greater prominence – Wieslaw Ochman as Narraboth and Hanna Schwarz as his page. The music is handled magnificently by Karl Böhm, one of the greatest of Strauss conductors, and the redoubtable Vienna Philharmonic.

Friedrich decided to record the orchestra and soloists first, then film the singer/actors afterward miming their parts because of the degree of visual control it afforded and the need for a musical performance recorded with as much sonic clarity as could be mustered in 1974. Strauss’ score is a towering landmark not only for its power, beauty, harmonic innovation and ability to disturb, but its wealth of inner detail, which often cannot be heard adequately in the opera house.

The lip-sync procedure is less than perfect (Weikl in particular struggles with it) and there are a handful of clunky visual decisions made by Friedrich in the course of the piece. But he makes so many good ones – with the singers giving their absolute all as actors – that the shortcomings are of no consequence.

There are two primary reasons why Salome ranks among the most important operas ever written. The music is simply stunning in its creativity – and not only in the context of 1905; it packs a tremendous wallop in 2012. Into this piece and the Elektra that followed, Strauss poured everything he had learned and synthesized, then upped the ante, pushing himself far beyond the outer limits of the “progressivism” he was known for at the time into polytonality and right to the doorstep of atonality. We chuckle today at how “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” “Don Quixote” and “Ein Heldenleben” were regarded as progressive, when they can now be seen largely as excesses of post-romanticism. But Salome is something quite different and truly radical. With this work, and the daring decisions he made while writing it, Strauss yanked opera decisively into the 20th century and laid crucial groundwork for Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu, Alexander Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy, several of Franz Schreker’s operas and Shostakovich’s much-later Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Apart from Salome’s harmonic and melodic pushing of the envelope, we experience one of the greatest masters of orchestral writing brilliantly applying the resources of a very large ensemble to a spectrum of emotions that range from idealized love through obsessive lust and all the way to the darkest depravities.

Most operagoers’ takeaway from Salome over the years has tended to focus less on Strauss’ music than the primal shock of Oscar Wilde’s overripe adaptation of the biblical story. But the opera is a truth teller about human nature. And, yes, it IS shocking – even when viewed through the lens of our modern culture, through which the creatures escaped from Pandora’s box fly thickly, wing over wing. Friedrich’s video excels in this regard, without resorting to such titillating literalism as presenting a nude Salome at the conclusion of the Dance of the Seven Veils. He sheds unprecedented dramatic light on the score wherever possible. For me, the most striking example is the four-minute orchestral interlude after Jokanaan is returned to the cistern following his rejection of Salome’s advances. His cameras follow Teresa Stratas in a series of close-ups in which she silently and supinely moves through a series of motions and expressions that convey her black despair at the rejection, uncertainty about what to do next, the dawning realization that she has the power to take the prophet’s life (chillingly suggested by contrabassoon and sul ponticello strings) and, finally, her confusion after the spell of her musings is broken by the approach of Herod and his courtiers. There’s a whole raft of gripping images in this sequence — most strikingly, Friedrich’s brief focus on Stratas’ mirrored headdress, which suggests a strange insect (a praying mantis, perhaps) slowly moving toward its prey.

The entire production is a feast of such episodes, too numerous to recount here but calibrated by a master to deliver the full punch of this amazing one-act opera, whose intensity rises in a steady arc to its shattering climax. The final scene of Salome — which (unlike in concert hall performances) really begins at the point where Herodias pries off Herod’s ring, sealing Jokanaan’s doom – has never been matched in musical terms for its melding of tension, horror and pathos. Friedrich meets this challenge through Stratas’ hysteria-laden wait for the prophet’s severed head to appear, her unhinged monologue to the mute object of her vengeful affections, and the spine-tingling climax, which through use of shadows depicts Salome as the monster she is and ends with the camera slowly panning up her rising body, rising unknowingly to meet her impending death singing “Ich habe deinen mund geküsst, Jochanaan” as Strauss’s vast orchestra swells to near the bursting point. Has there ever been such a powerful ending to an opera? Not to my knowledge.

The singing, the acting and the playing in this production are all on a very high level. I haven’t even gotten around to mentioning Weikl’s powerful portrayal of the noble but self-possessed Jokanaan, the priceless characterizations of the blood-drenched royal couple by Beirer and Varnay, or the idiosyncratic but very effective mixing of the orchestral track – which, like director Friedrich, is intent on revealing details often missed. Salome is a seminal work of art, and it repays repeated listening and watching many times over; it has a great deal to offer, and this video is a great place to start.

Finally, regarding the emotional impact it makes: Can you imagine being in the audience at the premiere in Dresden in 1905? A “shocker” it was then, and a shocker it remains today. But it’s much more than that. It’s one of the greatest operas ever written.

Richard Strauss: “Salome” — with Teresa Stratas, Bernd Weikl, Astrid Varnay, Hans Beirer; Karl Bohm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. 1974. 101 minutes. Deutsche Grammophon DVD 00440 073 4339

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