Salome, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Feb 2009

In this bizarre production the performers were dressed as clowns, in striped costumes, with upturned buckets, funnels, saucepans, and the like as headgear. They entered and exited through yellow doors in yellow walls, occasionally popping their heads up from behind these walls. Whether this would work for a stage version of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t work for a Strauss opera. Only Salome, right at the end, wore anything reasonable, namely a pink slip, and the evident intention was to show her as the only normal person in a world of lunatics. I felt sorry for Manuela Uhl as Salome, because she didn’t come over well until the final scene, and was given no dance. This high point of the opera started with two of the erstwhile guards dragging in a cleaning trolley and clearing the stage, after which they, along with the other four people on stage danced in a conga. Salome eventually took off her striped clown outfit, but there was no sexual allure whatsoever, and when Herod at the end of the dance sings, Herrlich. Wundervoll, you wonder why. As to the singers, Hanna Schwarz was excellent as Herodias, and Clemens Bieber sang Narraboth with power and incisiveness — what a shame he dies so early. Chris Merritt was a slightly underpowered Herod, Manuela Uhl a powerful but slightly screechy Salome, but they were all badly let down by Morten Frank Larsen as Jochanaan, whose voice was quite wrong for the part — powerful on the higher notes, but completely lost on the lower register. The absurd costumes and scenery were complemented by ridiculous staging, with the performers required to make stylized and nonsensical arm movements, and walk forwards and backwards in meaningless ways. The entire nonsense was attributed to an artist named Achim Freyer. But perhaps if one closed ones eyes and listened to the glorious music? No, that didn’t work either, because Ulf Schirmer as conductor seemed to have little control of the orchestra. In the loud passages they let rip, and in the more lyrical moments they were dull. Strauss’s music needs playing with restraint and emotional conviction. But this one-dimensional performance didn’t begin to do justice to what ought to be a highly charged musical rendering of sexual desire and religious fervour. What a let-down!

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