On first hearing excerpts of his son’s opera Salome, accomplished horn player Franz Strauss described the music as “having an insect crawling about inside one's clothes”. By now any bugs in composition are generally conceded to have been eradicated, but there is still the risk of pestilence in performance due to indifference or inferior casting. One would imagine that after more than 500 performances at the Wiener Staatsoper since 1918, the venerable Haus am Ring should have got it right by now.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Herod) and Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salome) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Herod) and Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salome)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

Boleslaw Barlog’s slightly faded production was first seen in 1972 with Karl Böhm and Leonie Rysanek. Conductor Simone Young and co somehow managed to sanitise what William Mann called "the nastiest opera in existence" into a tepid affair without a scintilla of sexuality, depravity, frisson, oriental mysticism or musical magic. Gustav Mahler described the score of Salome as “a live volcano” and, similar to Elektra, the enormous orchestra has an absolutely paramount role. Simone Young is an experienced volcanologist and no stranger to the Staatsoper pit, having the distinction of being the first woman to conduct the illustrious orchestra in 1993. The Australian-born conductor has a huge sweeping baton technique combined with remarkable physicality. She crouches, cringes, lunges, leans languorously against the pit wall, flicks her wrists in the manner of a conjuror and thrusts out her long baton with the imperiousness of Moses parting a musical Red Sea. Whilst there was a lot of decibel-shattering brass, especially from the horns and trombones, Young’s reading was short on nuance and finesse. Strauss said his instrumentation sought "truly exotic harmony that shimmered, especially in the strange cadences, like iridescent silk" but Young seemed to prefer loudness to lustre. Admittedly there was some subtle woodwind work in "the Beckoning" motif and the celebrated Vienna strings were stellar in "the Kiss" theme but overall this was more a case of “anything you can play, I can play louder”. This meant that the impact of the celebrated climatic dissonant “decadence” chord when Salome kisses Johanaan’s severed head, was almost underwhelming.

Željko Lučić (Jochanaan) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Željko Lučić (Jochanaan)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

The Wiener Staatsoper ensemble has a wealth of young singers for comprimario roles but these smaller parts were sung with minimal distinction. Carlos Osuna was out of his vocal depth as Narraboth with uneven phrasing and poor projection. Of the Jews, soldiers and Nazarenes, only Thomas Ebenstein as the First Jew and Alexandru Moisiuc as First Nazarene impressed. Iris Vermillion acted the role of the debauched, demi-dipsomaniac Herodias with permissible dramatic excess if not total vocal assurance although her exasperated “Er sol schweigen!” had plenty of punch. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke redeemed the role of Herod with a clarion top B flat in “Man töte diese Weib!”, but lacked the palpably neurotic persona of regular Staatsoper Tetrarch Herwig Pecoraro. Serbian baritone Željko Lučić was dramatically static and vocally underpowered. The mercurialness between dignified prophet and outraged zealot was never convincing. Whilst Lučić’s upper register was dependably solid, the voice lost projection in the lower tessitura and lacked the desirable dulcet cantilena.

Iris Vermillion (Herodias) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Iris Vermillion (Herodias)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

Apart from the orchestra, the title role in Salome is what this opera is all about and Gun-Brit Barkmin did nothing to erase the incandescent memory of Hildegard Behrens or the psychotic sexuality of Maria Ewing. The immense technical demands of the part certainly revealed Barkmin’s vocal strengths, but also certain weaknesses. There was some impressive upper register singing but noticeable  projection problems in the middle and lower register. Paradoxically the absurdly low G flat on “Geheimnis des Todes” was well growled. There was a lack of lightness in passages and an overall ambivalence to Wilde’s extravagantly poetic text. The ability to soar over the orchestral tsunami simply wasn’t there. Dramatically, Barkmin’s Salome was closer to a slightly spoilt society lass with a passing whim for necrophilia than the deranged daughter of Sodom. The dance was so un-erotic Herodes would hardly have offered his step-daughter a half-eaten pomegranate let alone half his Kingdom. 

In Hedwig Lachmann's translation of Oscar Wilde’s text, the Page, Salome and Herod all make references to the moon, not to mention Strauss’ specific stage directions. For whatever reason, Barlog and Rose’s staging showed no moon at all. And in this performance at least, no stars either.