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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Salome (1905)

Opera in one act and four scenes

Two Versions of Salome on Berlin Classics

Helmut Melchert (ten) (Herod)
Siw Ericsdotter (mezzo sop.) (Herodias)
Christel Goltz (sop) (Salome)
Ernst Gutstein (bar) (Jokanaan)
With Heinz Hoppe, Eva Fleisher, Harald Neukirch, Helmut Goldmann, Gottfried
Speck, Hans-Joachim Botzsch, Günther Leib
Staatskapelle Dresden/Otmar Suitner
Digital remastering (1995) of recording in August 1963 at Lukaskirche, Dresden
BERLIN CLASSICS 009102BC. 2 CDs [CD1: 52.97; CD2: 42.41]
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Bernd Aldenhoff (ten) (Herod)
Inger Karén (mezzo sop) (Herodias)
Christel Goltz (sop) (Salome)
Josef Herrmann (bar) (Jokanaan)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Joseph Keilberth
Digital remastering of a recorded broadcast on 20 May, 1948 by
Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, Dresden.
BERLIN CLASSICS BC2062. 2 CDs [CD1: 51.80; CD2: 45.20]
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From the '60s onwards there has been no shortage of top-flight of Salomes, among them the Solti/Nilsson recording by Decca in 1966 and von Karajan with Behrens and Agnes Baltsa for EMI in 1978, both with the Vienna Philharmonic and both outstanding. Nevertheless, Strauss's shocker wears well, and the opportunity to hear two digitally remastered versions on the Berlin Classics label, both with the Dresden Staatskapelle under, respectively, Otmar Suitner and Joseph Keilberth and both with the title role sung by Christel Goltz, is an irresistible opportunity for comparisons.

Based on a poem by Oscar Wilde, the fin-de-siècle decadence of Salome lacks none of the fascination of Strauss's shocker, though today's audiences may well react more tolerantly to the story of Salome's erotic obsession with the Christian prophet Jokanaan, imprisoned by her despotic step-father Herod. When he rejects her she demands his life - more precisely, his head - after her father has rashly sworn that he will grant her any wish in exchange for a sexy dance. Superficially the opera could be taken as a grim parable for over-indulgent parents; but there is far more to it than that, not least a deep ambivalence about the conflict between power and vulnerability, love and hate and even good old-fashioned right and wrong. Salome rejects wealth, luxury and the love of her Centurion suitor, for fantasy and, in the end, death. Strauss's voluptuous score demands acute insights into the personalities of the protagonists.

Though Suitner's relatively recent recording of these two performances is the more promising in terms of audio fidelity it is not easy to choose between them. The Keilberth is the more thrilling and the Suitner - orchestrally at least - the more tense and atmospheric, aided, as it is, by the resonant acoustic of the Lukaskirche, Dresden; but problems of balance occur in both. The Keilberth suffers severely from the dim studio sound of the original mono broadcast, though the singers fare better than the orchestra in this respect and, disgracefully, it lacks a libretto. On the other hand, Suitner's orchestra is often strident compared with Keilberth's silky approach and, after fifteen years, the youthful bloom on Goltz's voice has faded so that some passages are mere shadows of her earlier confident and. subtle interpretation. She is, however, surrounded by convincing characterisations from the rest of the cast. Bernd Aldenhoff's Herod reeks of evil, while in Suitner's in moments of high excitement Helmut Melchert tends to sound more like Leporello having a bad day than a despotic ruler. Josef Herrmann (Jokanaan) is a more powerful holy man than Ernst Gutstein and Inger Karén a more truly dotty Herodias than Siw Ericsdotter. But everything turns on the central figure, and as the final scene drives towards its violent conclusion the question remains: is Salome merely a spoiled brat with dysfunctional parents or an unloved and abused woman struggling to free herself from a web of depravity? Goltz tends towards the former (and, it could be said, less believable) approach. Goltz was a celebrated soprano in her day, and in the Keilberth performance is vocally in full command of the part and her repeated demand for "den Kopf des Jokanaan" has an authentic chill. In the Suitner - unlike the turmoil and despair that distinguish Nilsson's blazing interpretation - she often sounds strangely detached from an emotional involvement with the drama (though, yet again, it is possible to argue that Salome was more ice maiden than hot chick)

Clearly Strauss was not aiming at the popular success he achieved six years later with Der Rosenkavalier. His mastery, however, is unmistakable, with sweeping melodies and majestic orchestral sound. This is nowhere more seductively on display than in what must surely be the strangest "love duet" in all opera, as Salome sings alone and intimately of her love and disillusion to the severed head of Jokanaan with passages of atonality lending an added dimension of horror to the scene.

The opera has many facets, and the variety of possible interpretations it receives is alone sufficient justification for its continuing revival. There is no such thing as a benchmark Salome, though few can match, either vocally or orchestrally, Fritz Reiner in the late forties with Ljuba Welitsch or, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Inge Borkh in the mid-fifties. Regrettably, apart from a pirated Metropolitan Opera performance with Welitsch, a complete Reiner Salome has never been released on disc. The full gamey flavour of Reiner/Borkh's 1954-56 Salome (Salome's Dance and the final scene) can be savoured, together with scenes from Electra, on a remastered CD (BMG Classics, 60874).

Roy Brewer

See also

Comparative review by Marc Bridle

Article by Len Mullenger

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