“When I looked at you, I heard secret music,” says Salome in her monologue to the severed head of John the Baptist. Richard Strauss’s opera trades in the unseeable and the unknowable—from the range of metaphors applied to the moon to the nearly impossible staging of a ten-minute striptease performed by a dramatic soprano—which makes it unusually well suited to concert presentation. Strauss’ high-octane, atmospheric music can seem all the more lurid and mysterious when its subjective visualization is left to the imagination. When the stage seems to agree with Herodias and show that the moon is, in fact, merely the moon, things are rather less interesting than the swirl of images in the orchestra.

Franz Welser-Möst, Nina Stemme, Eric Owens, Jane Henschel © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Möst, Nina Stemme, Eric Owens, Jane Henschel
© Roger Mastroianni

In Thursday night’s presentation by the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, these depths were reached only sporadically, and the performance served largely as a showcase for the stunning performance of Nina Stemme in the title role. Strauss’ virtuosic and complex score would seem to benefit from being elevated from the pit to onstage status, as well as from the skill of an orchestra of this level. Indeed, the singers stood on two raised platforms at the rear corners of the orchestra, putting the instrumentalists literally front and center.

But the orchestra’s determination to render every note in the most beautiful way possible, along with their music director Franz Welser-Möst’s low-key and slightly bland conducting, made this an uneven reading from a symphonic perspective, and one that never plumbed the more extreme elements of Strauss’ score. While this was an exceptionally clean and clear performance, only in some of the loudest moments did it become exciting (particularly in the final scene)—and even then the orchestra showed more radiance than it did weight. Softer sections tended to be slack, and textures were transparent but lacking in direction and perspective. There was much to admire in the playing, such as the horn’s noble, perfectly blended rendition of the Jochanaan music and the strings’ evocation of the wind. The xylophone and marimba playing in the Dance of the Seven Veils was exceptional, though the dance sounded like another Strauss (Johann II) on a mild opium trip.

While she was standing far to the left behind the violins, in Nina Stemme the performance found its real center. Her voice is a true dramatic soprano, with a weighty sound throughout her range that still maintains a beautiful tonal quality. Before each high note, she pauses infinitesimally and then aims her sound like a sharpshooter into the hall, with a bright color that cuts through the heaviest orchestration. Indeed, she made the orchestra sound puny at times, for which some credit should go to Welser-Möst.

Stemme has sung this role in staged performances and portrayed a full character through her voice alone, with clear German diction, precise attention to the words, and a surprising ability to make her dark tone sound girlish. Her Salome began cool and calculating, less immature than simply disinterested. Her approach to the scene with Jochanaan was rather detached, later errupting into an unusually angry reading of “Ich bin bereit” leading into the dance, then retreating into a downright mischievous angle on the first demand for Jochanaan’s head. Her final scene found her seemingly tireless, with several majestic ritardandos simply allowing us to enjoy the power of her voice. She delivered her final “Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst” at a haunting hushed piano, almost without vibrato and yet sounding through the whole hall.

The highlight of the rest of the cast was Rudolf Schasching’s vividly characterized Herod. The role almost demands mugging, and Schasching made Herod an utterly unconscious buffoon in his trumpeting, ineffectual demands in his loud but narrow-timbred tenor. Somehow he never quite crossed the line into too much, probably because unlike many Herods his voice maintained a listenable, pleasant quality. Closer to camp was Jane Henschel’s cackling Herodias, but her sarcastic commentary was vocally formidable.

Eric Owns made excellent sounds as John the Baptist, though his offstage cistern sounded extremely far away. The role perhaps lies a little high for him, but his deep tone lent his proclamations a welcome nobility and grandeur. While his character has the most singerly, least speech-like music in the opera, more attention to the words and clearer German would have made his characterization more interesting.

In other roles, Garrett Sorenson was a somewhat Italinate Narraboth rendered not so audible by his placement at the far back of the orchestra. The Jews and Nazarenes were well sung and their ensemble finely balanced, particularly Rodell Rosel’s incisive First Jew.

It was unquestionably Stemme’s night. She is not often heard in New York (in recent years her only appearances have been a few performances of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met, a role to which she is not ideally suited), but based on the ovation at this performance many would be very grateful to have her back.