Nina Stemme as Salome © Chris Christodoulou
Nina Stemme as Salome
© Chris Christodoulou
Nina Stemme. Wow! There was a lot of talent on stage this evening, but the night belonged to her. Given the apparent ease (!) with which she sings Brünnhilde and Isolde, it is little surprise that Salome is well with her technical abilities. But there was much more to her performance this evening than just technique. Despite the concert setting, she gave a vocal performance that did full justice to the drama of the role. There was cunning here, and irony, seduction, faux innocence – the full spectrum. All that, combined with Stemme’s unparalleled ability to apply any timbre or dynamic to her voice at any point in her range, made this a very special performance indeed.

Doris Soffel as Herodias © Chris Christodoulou
Doris Soffel as Herodias
© Chris Christodoulou
She was supported by what amounted to a company production from Deutsche Oper, Berlin. Given that most of the singers (Stemme and Doris Soffel were the only exceptions) sang from the score, this was probably not a staged production that had been transplanted from the opera house, as most of the Wagner performances were last year. As a result, the performance didn’t quite have the unanimity or confidence that comes with a production that has already seen a full run. The Deutsche Oper orchestra clearly have this music in their blood, and their performance was as idiomatic as any. Similarly with conductor Donald Runnicles, whose flowing and confident reading spoke of a deep empathy with the music.

The supporting cast was strong, but less even. The finest performance was from Doris Soffel as Herodias, her voice slightly brittle with age, but all the better for this part. (She also has an excellent cackle, a brilliant dramatic effect, but used with discretion.)

Burkhard Ulrich as Herod in Salome © Chris Christodoulou
Burkhard Ulrich as Herod in Salome
© Chris Christodoulou
Burkhard Ulrich is a compelling Herod. His voice isn’t large, but it projects, and his diction is excellent: almost an actor’s rendition. Seth Carico, as Cappadocian, had the most impressive low voice, the only one of the comprimario singers who seemed underused.

Samuel Youn, usually a dependable bass-baritone, struggled as Jokanaan, and his voice cracked under the pressure on at least two occasions. A singular aberration no doubt, but an unfortunate one. The soldiers and Jews were generally mixed, with few standout performances for better or worse.

The performance was advertised as semi-staged, but quarter-staged would be exaggerating the point. As with last year’s Wagner performances, director Justin Way was charged with creating set- and costume-less visual presentations in front of (and, briefly, behind) the orchestra onstage. The fact that most of the singers were reading from stands limited the dramatic potential, but even so, this was a perfunctory effort – entrances and exits from various corners of the stage was about the measure of it. Suffice to say, there was no full-frontal nudity. And no severed head.

Donald Runnicles conducts Deutsche Oper Berlin © Chris Christodoulou
Donald Runnicles conducts Deutsche Oper Berlin
© Chris Christodoulou
Runnicles and the orchestra compensated with some impressively dramatic music. Like the Ring cycle, this is an opera where it is great to have the orchestra on stage, not just for the detail of the orchestral writing, but also to see all the unusual instruments, among them contra-bass trombone and baritone oboe. Runnicles didn’t go to any great extremes in his interpretation; lyricism and flow were the priorities here. But he built up the textures in the Dance of the Seven Veils with impressive focus and drive, and in the final scene, his sensitivity, without undue restraint, in supporting Stemme, was crucial to its success.

And what a success it was. The ovation that followed the last of those punch chords was spontaneous and rapturous, even by Proms standards. Last year, Nina Stemme stole the show from Daniel Barenboim at the end of his Ring cycle, and this year she has done it again. Is it wishful thinking to anticipate annual appearances from this Swedish phenomenon in the years ahead?