Above Sigmundstor, the tunnel that cuts through Salzburg's mighty Mönchsberg next to the Festspielhaus, is the Latin inscription Te saxa loquuntur: the stones speak of you. Also hewn into the Mönchsberg rock a stone's throw south is the Felsenreitschule – literally Rock Riding School – the former cavalry stables, now festival theatre. In Romeo Castellucci's production of Strauss' Salome there, Te saxa loquuntur is emblazoned across the frontcloth. Before the curtain rises, Salome takes a sword and slices through this inscription. What secrets would these stones impart? Any help would be welcome because Castellucci only offers riddles.

Asmik Grigorian (Salome) © Ruth Walz
Asmik Grigorian (Salome)
© Ruth Walz

Things are not what they seem. Or at least not what the libretto states. “The moon is shining very brightly”... but here it is blacked out, eclipsed, erased. Jews mop the stage – a golden surface to represent Herod's realm – before a single drop of blood is shed. Jochanaan is no “ivory statue”, but caked in black filth, cloaked in black fur. He also takes the form of a black stallion, circling inside the cistern while the Vienna Philharmonic climaxes noisily and Salome, in a white nightdress – or is it a bridal gown – stained with menstrual blood, writhes orgasmically on her back, legs stretched wide.

Salome does not perform the Dance of the Seven Veils, but takes up a foetal position, bound naked with black tape to Herod's throne as a giant block of stone slowly descends, seeming to crush her. These stones don't speak. They silence. Castellucci even hides the 96 arches of the Felsenreitschule, icily filling in the void, muting them. 

John Daszak (Herod), Anna Maria Chiuri (Herodias), Asmik Grigorian (Salome) and ensemble © Ruth Walz
John Daszak (Herod), Anna Maria Chiuri (Herodias), Asmik Grigorian (Salome) and ensemble
© Ruth Walz

Before Herod has consented to her shocking request, Salome is delivered the horse's head in a plastic bag. She writhes in a pool of milk, feverishly writing on the surface. She is then brought not the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, but his decapitated body. She sits on his lap, but is unable to kiss his mouth because there is no mouth to kiss. Eventually the moon, in the form of a black silk hot air balloon, tumbles down to engulf the stage.

Asmik Grigorian (Salome) and Gábor Bretz (Jochanaan) © Ruth Walz
Asmik Grigorian (Salome) and Gábor Bretz (Jochanaan)
© Ruth Walz

It's a disturbing, perverse reading, but then Salome is a disturbing, perverse opera. Central to the success of this production is the astonishing Salome of Asmik Grigorian. The Lithuanian soprano captivates the audience as much as she captivates Herod. Her Judean princess is no innocent, a sulky teen, manipulative, wrapping herself in Narraboth's arms, toying with him for her own ends. She paws the ground, impatient for Jochanaan's arrival, and when she straps a saddle to her back, we know exactly what she wants. Grigorian's soprano is bright, rippled with steel and it slices tirelessly through a rampant Vienna Philharmonic. Yet she can scale it down too, caressing the phrase “Den Kopf des Jochanaan” sweetly before vehemently repeating her demand, deliberately sliding off note.

Castellucci's staging puts all the other characters in the shade. Gábor Bretz is a soft-grained Jochanaan, eloquently sung, while John Daszak foams at the mouth as Herod, his flinty tenor growing strained as the horror of the situation hits home. Anna Maria Chiuri cackles vengefully as Herodias. Julian Prégardien floats his tenor attractively as Narraboth, infatuated with the teen princess.

Asmik Grigorian (Salome) © Ruth Walz
Asmik Grigorian (Salome)
© Ruth Walz

From the stealthy opening clarinet glide, the Vienna Philharmonic was on scorching form under Franz Welser-Möst who drove them on wildly. The horns flared their nostrils, ripe bassoons groaned, the xylophone clattered furiously through the Seven Veils. At times, Welser-Möst refused to rein his players in, but when they make such a glorious sound, who can blame him? After the ecstasy of Salome's kiss and Herod's order to have her killed, the final orchestral chords spluttered to a stop, leaving the stones to coldly echo the silence.

****1