The opening of this year’s Verbier Festival was also a closing of sorts, as Charles Dutoit concluded his eight-year tenure as director of the youthful Verbier Festival Orchestra with a profoundly engaged account of Richard Strauss’ dark and densely scored opera, Salome. Indeed, with giant screens either side of the platform ready to home in on soloists, stadium-rock style, the mismatch between musical excess and fresh-faced youthfulness verged on the disturbing. There’ll be more of the same later in the festival when Esa-Pekka Salonen leads this angelic host in Elektra.

Charles Dutoit © Aline Paley
Charles Dutoit
© Aline Paley

Dutoit himself was an urbane but authoritative commander-in-chief, his vision for Salome uncompromised by anyone’s age or experience. Lesson One: demonstrate just how little noise can be made by 106 players in a tutti when texture comes before power. Lesson Two: let rip when the need arises, yet do so without obliterating the voices. This is a good trick when the orchestra is arrayed in splendour behind the singers rather than in a pit, although even this master technician could do little against the elements when the Alpine heavens opened and the overhead canopy danced to the rhythm of a downpour.

It was an interpretation to savour, and individual moments such as the snaking bass clarinet that skulked around Jochanaan’s cell evoked shivers of a kind one rarely experiences in an opera house. However, in other respects the lack of even a semi-staging for this concert performance led to a surfeit of disappointments. Everyone had Strauss’ notes in their heads but too few of Dutoit’s singers had the drama in their bones. Only the imposing tenor Rouwen Huther gave a complete interpretation, forthright and deeply involved from the inside out; and when First Jew is your star turn in Salome, you’ve got problems.

Gun-Brit Barkmin © Aline Paley
Gun-Brit Barkmin
© Aline Paley

Gun-Brit Barkmin’s assumption of the title role was especially puzzling. Undoubtedly the role was a challenge for her, but rather than embrace the difficulties and seek out the opera’s monstrous child she held herself in adult control, stiff and smiling, with elbows glued to her sides and both hands clasped just beneath her throat – pretty much throughout. In the high-lying writing her tessitura was secure on sustained notes, less reliable in changing phrases, but there was neither debauchery nor madness. Indeed, in her climactic scena it could have been the Marschallin who sang.

Gerhard Siegel and Jane Henschel gave strong, dominant accounts of Herod and Herodias; Egils Silins was a notably dignified Jochanaan, albeit with insufficient tonal breadth in his low register; Andrew Staples sang with his accustomed beauty as Narraboth, and Idunnu Münch was an ideally measured presence as the Page of Herodias. As for the other comprimario contributors, they came, they sang, they left the stage.

Egils Silins © Aline Paley
Egils Silins
© Aline Paley

Since this Salome was all about the orchestra, it is no surprise that the evening’s highlight was a rich and delicious Dance of the Seven Veils, which arrived complete with the sting of infected sumptuousness. Like most honest listeners I crave a taste of turpitude in Salome, and after a long wait that was where I found it.

**111