The just as the Dresden Semperoper gave last season a Wagner focus to celebrate his bicentenary, the current season has been built around a series of Strauss operas. Both composers have a strong link to Dresden’s famous opera house, which hosted the premieres of Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Arabella, and tonight’s opera, Salome. This scandalous opera, based on Oscar Wilde’s stage adaptation of both biblical and non-biblical retellings of the story, was originally met with resistance from audiences and censors, but has since seen great success, becoming an established part of the repertoire.

Tómas Tómasson (Jochanaan) and Erika Sunnegårdh (Salome) © Matthias Creutziger
Tómas Tómasson (Jochanaan) and Erika Sunnegårdh (Salome)
© Matthias Creutziger

Peter Mussbach's Semperoper production is striking, with effective use of contrast in both lighting and costume. All characters wear black, except for Salome and Jochanaan, whose white clothing unites them and immediately draws one to similarities in their characters. Both feel themselves isolated from the society they find themselves in, and both speak of love, but the focus on these similarities only makes their many differences more stark. Mussbach’s set is a large box of Perspex within a letterbox-like slit, the full width of the stage. Though the dark story is not reflected by this brightness of the set, its sterility heightens the lack of recognisable human emotions in the work. Salome is a psychopath who turns necrophiliac, Herod is a womanising paedophile, Herodias is as venomous as Jochanaan is visionary. There’s no one to relate to here, and the soulless set makes this all the more striking.

The singing was some of the best I’ve heard at the Semperoper, with a superbly dramatic Herodias from the Tichina Vaughn and an equally compelling Herodes from Jürgen Müller. Both had not only great voices, but real stage presence, the former majestic yet caustic, the latter, by turns, commanding and pathetic. Tómas Tómasson is the perfect Jochanaan, with real power throughout his range, and his oratorio-like delivery gives his prophecies even more gravitas. With such a large cast of solo roles, Salome is always difficult to pull off, even for the best houses, and the result is often a mixed bag of smaller roles. Tenor Wookyung Kim’s Narraboth was a real tour de force, while the Jews and the Nazarenes ranged from excellent to almost inaudible.

Jürgen Müller (Herodes), Erika Sunnegårdh (Salome) and Tómas Tómasson (Jochanaan) © Matthias Creutziger
Jürgen Müller (Herodes), Erika Sunnegårdh (Salome) and Tómas Tómasson (Jochanaan)
© Matthias Creutziger

In spite of many good performances onstage, Erika Sunnegårdh’s Salome was the focus of attention from beginning to end, and rightly so. The character of Salome isn’t just seductive for Herod and Narraboth, but for the audience, and the soprano performing this role has to embody that, both in movement and appearance. That’s before we consider her ability to sing the role, which requires the voice of the best dramatic soprano, with a strong top. The role also requires incredible stamina to sing almost solidly for 90 minutes, with the only break being to dance. There are only a few dramatic sopranos around who are really able to do this and Sunnegårdh is most certainly one of them. She’s beautiful and graceful on stage, and has one of the best voices I’ve heard in Dresden. The colours are kaleidoscopic, and she always sings with a sense of line, while giving so much more meaning to the text than the words alone provide.

Jürgen Müller (Herodes) and Erika Sunnegårdh (Salome) © Matthias Creutziger
Jürgen Müller (Herodes) and Erika Sunnegårdh (Salome)
© Matthias Creutziger

The only thing missing from this production was a convincing solution to “The Dance of the Seven Veils”. Most sopranos aren’t willing to strip on stage in front of thousands of people, but there has to be a solution to the problem. The tension and unease that this operatic striptease creates is not easily replaced. David McVicar’s London production reconceptualizes the dance as a symbolic journey through time and space, exploring the relationship between Herod and Salome, while the more traditional body stockings and fill-in dancers have a long history. However, Mussbach’s vague dance is both too broken up and too bland.

The orchestra played superbly under the young conductor Cornelius Meister, who led a glittering and dramatic performance. The problems of balance which are often present in the Semperoper, largely due to the size of the theatre and the large, open pit, were well managed, allowing the singers the space to perform without muzzling the orchestra’s radiant sound.

Overall, this is a fantastic production, visually, musically and dramatically stimulating, which I can highly recommend. It’s most certainly the best Salome I’ve seen on stage, and will take some beating, despite my minor reservations. That said, I do hope for a more convincing “Dance” with which to seduce both Herod and the audience.