One 16 years old and three murders in just 100 minutes

“Salome“ Premiere at the Munich State Opera on July 27th, 2019

The first Premiere of 2019 Opera Festival Season at the Munich State Opera featured one of the most challenging and exciting operas of the 20th century: “Salome” by Richard Strauß. Conducted by parting general musical director Kirill Petrenko and staged by Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, the evening was a true celebration of the orchestra and the mastery of ist leader. During its world premiere in 1905, Richard Strauss instigated an intentional scandal with his third opera, using as a libretto Oscar Wilde’s one-act drama, that already has been assailed by censorship. Unfortunately, the opening night in Munich was anything but a scandal and should there be no such a captivating musical reading by Petrenko, this evening would end up in a kind of fiasco, due to unfortunate staging by Krzysztof Warlikowski.

Kirill Petrenko. Foto: Monika Rittershaus

The Bavarian State Orchestra and its leader were a true revelation of this evening. Petrenko manages to pull out an extraterrestrial level of dynamic balance. He is a master of sounds-colors and acoustic atmosphere, dynamically never exaggerating: clear, majestic, powerful (in the interlude) and with barely perceptible, but physically palpable piano at the beginning of the final scene. In this, as well as in any other performance, Petrenko is highly appreciated singers’ companion, for he carries them, so to speak, on his hands, leaving the smallest voices well audible.

Contrary to Petrenko, Warlikowski has brought out quite a confusing, at times full of diffuse historical references and contextual contradictions, staging. His honorable attempt to combine the tragic historical facts of the 20-century history (Nazi) and his diffusing perception of the plot, ended in tangled accumulation of clues and hints, ultimately neglecting the story itself. Together with Małgorzata Szczęśniak (impressive stage and flattering costumes), Felice Ross (lighting) and Claude Bardouil (choreography) Warlikowski created an atmosphere of closeness, fear, unfulfilled desire, and inescapable death.

The Story. The young princess Salome is bored with her everyday life and is discussed by her stepfather’s Herodes and other inhabitants of the palace sexual advances. At one moment she is confronted with the passionate monologue of an imprisoned prophet Jochanaan. She demands to see him and immediately is taking away by his masculinity and power of his beliefs. She is sexually attracted to him but is genuinely interested in getting to know his Got but is fearfully rejected by Johanna as a daughter of Sodoms. Salome is outraged. Nobody ever had rejected her love. During a feast at the evening, Herodes requests that Salome dance for him, and in return promises her to fulfill any of her wishes. Salome consents and following the dance demands the prisoner’s head. Thus, she can finally kiss Jochanaan’s lips. Discussed Herodes commands to kill Salome.

Marlis Petersen as Salome und Wolfgang Koch as Jochanaan. Foto Winfred Hösl

Warlikowski did not seem to bother with an establishment of compelling, memorable characters and, with few acceptions, leaves singers mostly at the front of the stage to concentrate on singing and music. This is very much perceptible with Wolfgang Koch as Johannaan.  He sings with a powerful, dramatic voice, but is very static, looking anything but a “withered” prisoner (there was much laughter in the audience).  Because of his impressive physical size and breadth, greasy hair and bum makeup, the audience had great difficulties in retracing Salome’s desperate erotic advances towards him. At the end of the opera, the prophet exited the stage puffing the cigarette, sending the waves of frustrated “O, no! Why?“ through the audience.

The Salome of the opening night, Marlies Petersen, had little of Salome´s irrational excessiveness or hysterical attitude, of “mental cruelty, immeasurable lust, and limitless pervertedness.” (Oscar Wilde). We experience a copy of Berg’s Lulu: cold, reserved, and emotionless. Vocally, Salome is a border role for Petersen. Despite some difficulties at the top, she was nonetheless celebrated for her debut as moody Jewish princess and deserved the praise to have well managed this demanding role, singing with a rather small voice, but in a smart, well-coached way.

Marlis Petersen als Salome. Foto Patricia Sigerist

“And the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death”. Salome after kissing the severed head of Jahanaan.

Pavol Breslik as Narraboth (likable, powerful tenor and a great actor) plays a horny he-goat, who regularly sexually pursues Salome.  Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Herodes has sung well but seemed to have difficulties in adjusting to Warlikowski’s vision of him as a Jewish Rabbi.  Michaela Schuster as Herodias has significant, but the monotonous voice.  Although enjoying a remarkable stage presence, she remains, again due to the non-existing personae interpretation, a colorless, secondary character.

Killing three man in just 100 minutes. Salome (Marlis Petersen) und Herodes (Wolfgang Aiblinger-Sperrhacke, standing). Foto Winfred Hösl

Due to Warlikowski’s accumulation of hints and clues, mentioned above the famous seven veils dance is more of a dressing-up formal Jewish wedding, rather than an act of an erotic divesting. In the final scene, there is no severed head of Johannaan presented to Salome on the silver plate. Instead, she gets a box full of blood-stained cloth: an intriguing, but, unfortunately, not a new idea. 

At the end of the performance, the stage director and his team were met with massive boos, with Małgorzata Szczęśniak making an unfortunate disrespectful gesture toward the audience. Petrenko and Petersen instead were greeted with frantic applause, making it again even more comprehensive that thoughtful and respectful interpretation of the score and mastery singing, still are and will remain the only true saviors of and gift to any opera staging, even the most disastrous one.

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