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[Music Drama in One Act]

Composer: Richard Strauss

After the French play by Oscar Wilde

in the German translation by Hedwig Lachmann

First performed: Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden, 1905

Present Company: Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2011

Director: Nikolaus Lehnhoff

Set Design: Hans-Martin Scholder

Costumes: Bettina Walter

Lighting: Duane Schuler

Sound Engineer: Peter Ghirardini

Video Director: Thomas Grimm

Deutches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

Conductor: Stefan Soltesz



Salome: Angela Denoke

Herodes: Kim Begley

Herodias: Doris Soffel

Jochanaan: Alan Hed

Narraboth: Marcel Reijans

Page: Jurgita Adamonytė



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-25

Opera: 19.01 GB

Bit Rate: Low-Moderate (17~24 Mbps)

German DTS-HD MA 5.0

German PCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, German, Italian, French, Spanish & Korean

Region: All

Opera runtime: 102 minutes

Arthaus Musik, 2011



Conception & Staging: A-

Costumes: B+

Casting: A

Singing: A-

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: B+

Image: B

Audio: A

Extras Features: D

Recommendation: B+



Richard Strauss had already made a name for himself in the concert hall with his symphonic poems (most notably: Till Eulenspiegel, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Ein Heldenleben, Also Sprach Zarathustra and Don Quixote) when his attention and fortunes became absorbed with the stage.  After a couple of iffy starts at the end of the previous century, in fairly quick succession, not unlike with Stravinsky’s first great ballets (Firebird, Petrouchka, and Le Sacre) and at just about the same time (Strauss: 1905-1911; Stravinsky: 1910-1913), Strauss wrote Salome, Elektra and Der RosenkavalierFirebird and Salome are among the most sensuous pieces written for the stage before and since.  Beyond that, the similarity in trajectory for these two composers is quite different except that their first three works for the stage couldn’t be more different from one another.


Salome: Incredibly erotic with its impossible leaps. Note the melodic drop commonly sung in the name “Jochanaan” - try singing that yourself.  Try imagining yourself singing it. The intent is not to make life difficult for the singer but to express the name sexually in musical terms.  Wagner had a go of it harmonically for much of the second act in Tristan, but to attempt the equivalent in a mere six notes!

Josephus provides an account concerning Herod, Herodias and John the Baptist, but not a daughter.  All the same, it is of interest:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him.


Mark 6:17-29 provides an accounting very much in keeping with the story as it has been passed down and as Oscar Wilde ran with it two thousand years later:

     For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

    Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.

    The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”

“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 

    The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

The only thing missing from any known account is her name.  Interestingly, as Wikipedia points out, the name Salome in Hebrew is שלומית and is derived from the root word ŠLM (שלם), meaning "peace".  Who knew!  Wilde wrote his play in French to be staged in France in part because he felt the language more suitable to the subject, but also because at the time British law prohibited the portrayal of Biblical characters on stage.  (We can see why Ken Russell was keen on producing a film version of the play.)


The Story

The opera opens with a dreamy remark about Salome by Narraboth, the captain of the guard, echoed by himself and later, Salome’s stepfather, Herod: Wie schön is die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht! (Behold how fair the princess Salome looks tonight!)  A declaration that the opera is about sexual obsession.  From the moment of Salome’s entrance, the focus never wavers.

Herod has imprisoned John the Baptist (Jochanaan) and has given strict instructions that ho one is to speak to him.  Salome seduces Narraboth to let John out of his dungeon so that she may speak to him.  He does so, protesting all the while.  John continues his diatribe against her mother and stepfather, especially the former.  Salome is not interested in politics but she is powerfully aroused by this man who pays her no mind.  Her attempts to seduce him are met with a scathing rebuff, while at the same time her attentions inflame Narraboth who anticipates Herod’s displeasure for having violated his command.  He takes the coward’s way out of his dilemma.


Herod enters, tormented by visions of impending doom. By this time, John has been returned to his cell.  As John persists in his denunciations of Herodias, she urges her husband to have him silenced. The jews want John handed over to them, declaring him to be a holy man, but Herod, fearing insurrection, refuses.  He won’t kill John for the same reason.  Herod is even more taken with the princess than was Narraboth. When Salome re-enters, he pesters her to dance for him and offers her anything - even half his kingdom - if she does. 

Even without the legend working in our imagination, we can see where this is going.  Salome dances and then demands John’s head on a silver platter, thus pitting her mother, who is delighted, against her stepfather, while appeasing her rage against the man who refused her kisses in a roller coaster of psychological implications.  A considerable part of the final scene shows Salome caressing John’s head in a kind of foreplay but is rather miffed that he still refuses to engage with her.  It’s really quite a scene.  Herod, in a moment of uncharacteristic clarity, realizes what he has done and lost, and orders her death as the curtain closes.


I came across an insightful and well researched essay by Andrea Deagon, Ph.D. on-line and herewith offer this excerpt:

When Oscar Wilde addressed the Salomé story, he was well aware that the heart of the story was precisely its complexity, clustering around the vital symbol of the lascivious female body and the disembodied masculine head. When he was first framing the story, he veered between seeing Salomé as a divinely inspired innocent, and an incarnation of evil. He toyed with different characterizations, plot twists and dénouements. The play he finally wrote revels in the story’s inherent complexities. His Salomé is a teenaged virgin, but she is described in the imagery of the eternal moon. She is overwhelmed by a violent passion for the ascetic prophet Iokanaan (John the Baptist), a passion with aspects of both a juvenile crush and a raging hunger of body and soul. Rejected by him (“Daughter of Sodom, come not near me!”), and surrounded by the petty squabbles and debaucheries of Herod’s court, her passion is warped into desire to possess what she cannot really have.

What marked Salomé was never the veil, but the Head. The classic image of Salomé showed her as one half of an eternal dyad: the body (and all it represents) vs. the head (likewise). The body is conceived as female, the head male. The body is youthful, sexual, and without moral sense; the head is a mature man’s, ascetic, the silenced voice of God. The body is victorious in the present, “worldly” sphere, but subject to age, death, and the processes of history, thus ultimately revealed to be worthless. The silenced head continues to “speak” a truth that prevails in both heaven and history.



Emphasizing the twisted psychology of the events and characters, Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff and Set Designer Hans-Martin Scholder stage the opera on a number of planes, none of which are “properly” perpendicular or parallel with any other.  Raked floors are all over the place.  There is even a set of stairs that ends abruptly several steps before it reaches the floor.  The entire set suggests a bombed out  citadel.  The costumes are 20th century, suggestive of the Third Reich.  Salome herself is dressed in an outrageous strawberry frock that could have been lifted from Lulu’s closet.

Herod can’t keep his hands off his stepdaughter - or, rather, that’s our impression of his wish.  In fact, he grasps a great deal but Salome remains mostly just out of reach - except when she doesn’t. Herodias is tightly wrapped in antique gold with a shock of orange/red hair top her off.  Salome’s mouse blonde hair is cut short, while Jochanaan is bald except for a long, thick pony tail like the genii in Korda’s Thief of Bagdad.  Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils - which, by the way, I understand from Dr. Deagon’s essay is entirely an invention of Wilde - is performed by Miss Denoke.  There are no veils as such, but various bits are discarded including two complete layers of clothing.


The Music

This being Strauss’s first serious - or should I say: successful - crack at opera, it is no surprise that he relies on the same vocabulary he employed with his tone poems.  And why not?  He meant for those works to be descriptive and audiences took them for such  We keep hearing echoes of Zarathustra, Don Juan and God knows what else.  (If you listen closely you will hear touches of Rosenkavalier.Still, Strauss works it all in convincingly and if weren’t for our familiarity with his past orchestral works (and future operas), we probably wouldn't notice the theft.

The opera is in one act without an overture or prelude. Inside of a couple of measures Narraboth utters his refrain and seals his fate in the process.  There are several striking melodic motives, one of which is a series of falling odd intervals that are associated with John and by extension, prophesy and the foreshadowing of events in the opera.  The names of Salome and Jochanaan are often expressed in a falling melody of delicious sensuality.  And when Salome kisses the severed head of John, an extraordinarily dissonant chord curdles the blood - his and hers as well as ours, I imagine.



I have both the Caballé/Leinsdorf and Nilsson/Solti recordings on LP.  Both have their points, but the Solti wins on production values, retaining some sense of Jochanaan’s prison cell and better dynamic nuance as well as a more insinuating Salome.  Marcel Reijans’ Narraboth is to die for. He completely blows away James King on the Leinsdorf, though that may not be saying much. I could listen to Reijans’ opening phrase endlessly, and Strauss affords just that opportunity.  Kim Begley makes for a properly distressed Herod.  He aches for Salome but never fails apart vocally whilst doing so.  Alan Hed is authoritative as the holy man with a consciousness in some alternate universe.  Hed appears to have had his eyes blinded for the role and his voice is the better for it.  But the performance that really nails character and vocal talent to the rear wall of a sold-out theatre is Doris Soffel’s Herodias (Agnes Morehead by way of Henry Daniell)  This is a serious performance that will scare the piss out of you.

I wish I was as sold on Angela Denoke’s Salome.  Let’s be fair, the role is impossible - more theoretical than practical.  It requires grace, youth, sex appeal, dancing talent, a vocal range that only an Yma Sumac would be happy with, and she needs to be a good actress.  In some ways Denoke is reminiscent of the legendary Anja Silja, of whose 1968 stage performance, Opera’s Harold Rosenthal wrote:


Anja Silja's performance was a tour-de-force. Her voice is not beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, but it is clearly projected, and every phrase carries its overtones—psychological not musical—which suggest the child-like degenerate, over-sexed princess in all too clear a manner. Her nervous, almost thin body is never still; she rolls on her stomach and on her back; she crawls, she slithers, she leaps, she kneels. . .

Indeed, Denoke embodies Salome’s physicality, her catlike predatation and willful, almost delusional psyche.  But I am uncomfortable watching sing.  I’m sure it’s my problem, but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it:  Denoke has a way of engaging her entire embouchure - upper and lower lip and part of her chin - in her vibrato that gives me the willies. Clearly opera was never meant to be viewed in such screen filling close-up.  I can’t say such quivering doesn't really help her pitch all that much.  The good news is that this all doesn’t happen every time she opens her mouth or even with every phrase, only when she holds a higher note for a length of time.  Still. . .

On the other hand the Deutches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin acquits itself very well under the direction of Stefan Soltesz, who brings out all the sensuality and terror we could hope for.  High marks for both.


Video & Image

Arthaus Musik does tend to use as low a bit rate as they can get away with, and often stuff two hour operas onto a BD-25 instead of letting them breathe over two layers.  I can’t say that the “cheat” causes evident image problems, but it is clear enough that the image here is somewhat grainy which makes the image softer than we usually get on Blu-ray operas.  Also, there is chroma noise in the shadow areas and subtle motion issues that need to be resolved by your video processor.  In my case watching the opera on the iMac was tough going when actors move or turn suddenly, but my OPPO BDP-95 had no trouble sorting them out.  Point is that real world viewing is more or less problem-free.  Colors are very good; face tones, realistic, given the lighting. Contrast usually, but always, in control.  By the way, major kudos to the makeup artist that created Jochanaan’s severed head.  If this weren’t live opera we might think this was some EFX trick.

As for Thomas Grimm’s video direction, I found his close-ups to be too frequent, too close and occasionally given to problematic fosuing issues.  Close-ups are fine in their way, but as soon as the actor moves the camera is in deep doo-doo unless you cut away to a wider shot or another framing altogether, such as a different character’s reaction.  In fact, Grimm rather enjoys reactions and I am grateful for them, as here.  It’s just that too often his close-up choices seemed suffocating.  This is especially true for Jochanaan but sometime Salome as well.  The lack of precise motion control didn’t help matters as an actor would move during a close-up and for a moment there is undesirable confusion.



Both uncompressed stereo and 5.0 surround mixes are very good, with little to rule out the one over the other until the entrance of Jochanaan, whose dungeon is beneath center stage and offers a prophet-sized cavernous resonance to Alan Hed’s marvelous bass.  I like that the surround mix does not place the listener in the middle of the orchestra, as some do.  Stage and pit are in very good balance, with true vocal timbres and clean instrumental textures.  For an opera that tends to force the issue, no one is caught out screaming.  Quite the contrary.  Nuance and elegance of tone is the rule of the day.


Nothing here outside of a few Arthaus promos.  I found the preview for Medea in Corinto enticing.



I don’t quite know what it is about Richard Strauss, but, like his melodies and wandering harmonic rhythm, I find him endlessly seductive.  I cut my orchestral teeth on his tone poems but once old enough to embrace his more extended stage works, these too made an indelible impression, and I can listen to them without picture or knowledge of the text with the greatest pleasure.  So, while I am an easy mark for any of his operas, I am harder to please about a given realization on stage.  So it was with Christof Loy’s Salzburg production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten and so it is here for different reasons.  Truth is that I like both of these productions in certain ways but can’t quite bring myself to give either one full marks.  In the present case, there are troubling video issues and I couldn't quite warm to Angela Denoke.

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

August 31, 2012

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