Although religious and moral sensibilities prevented Salome from being performed in Vienna until 1918 (some 13 years after its première in not so distant Dresden) Richard Strauss subsequently conducted his ‘scandalous’ opera at the Wiener Staatsoper on multiple occasions. His last performance was in 1942 so it is no wonder the Wiener Staatsoper orchestra can draw on authentic musical traditions in its playing of this fascinating, kaleidoscopic score which Gustav Mahler once described it as “a live volcano”.

Lise Lindstrom (Salome) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Lise Lindstrom (Salome)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
The production by Boleslaw Barlog and Jürgen Rose also has impressive longevity. It was first seen in 1972 when conducted by Karl Böhm with Leonie Rysanek in the title role and has been successfully dusted off on more than 200 occasions. The stage concept still works so well because there is absolutely nothing controversial about it. Barlog follows Strauss’ directions implicitly and in bringing most of the drama to the front of the set, lessens the risk of the singers being swamped by the tsunami of orchestral sound – but not by much.

Apart from exemplary orchestral playing, the strength of this performance was the remarkable quality of all the principal singers with the exception of the Narraboth of Carlos Osuna who was vocally and dramatically underwhelming.

Even the gaggle of bickering Jews, Nazarenes and soldiers was more than acceptable, particularly the First Nazarene of Alexandru Moisiuc who sang his short “Er ist gekommen” passage with commendable lyricism and sensitivity.

Carole Wilson (Herodias) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Carole Wilson (Herodias)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Making her Vienna debut in the role of Herodias, English mezzo-soprano Carole Wilson scored a singular triumph. Here was a singer/actress of Regina Resnik calibre who was as fascinating to watch as she was to hear. Imperious, nagging, disdainful and domineering, it was clear she made Herodes’ life sheer hell. Regrettably she looked rather like Terence Stamp as Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but this just made the performance even more memorable. Her exasperated fortissimo top A natural on “Er soll schweigen!” was Nilsson-esque.

As the long-suffering, lustful Tetrach, veteran tenor Herwig Pecoraro (an outstanding Mime in Simon Rattle’s Ring earlier this year) was utterly convincing. Sly, cowardly, pompous, superstitious and palpably sexually obsessed with his stepdaughter, this was in all respects an outstanding characterization. On a vocal level, Mr Pecoraro was similarly impressive and the final top B flat on “Man töte dieses Weib!” could have been mistaken for Wolfgang Windgassen in his prime.

Current Staatsoper Lieblingskind Tomasz Konieczny (which appropriately means ‘necessary’ in Polish) sang an impassioned and potent Jochanaan. His upper register is really thrilling and top F sharps and E naturals were clarion in tone and piercing in projection. There was also some beautiful phrasing in “und such des Menschen Sohn” and “auf dem See von Galiläa”. “Niemals, Tochter Babylons!” was growled with real menace. His singing of “der Könige gekündet hat” and top F natural on the final “Du bist verflucht!” was so powerful that even the barrage of brass was matched in volume. Konieczny’s only negative was a tendency to flap his arms around in the manner of a sign-language interpreter, but this visual distraction did little to detract from the overall vocal excellence.

Joining the long list of celebrated Salomes to appear on the Staatsoper stage (starting with Maria Jeritza) American soprano Lise Lindstrom gave a more restrained but none the less absorbing performance in the title role. With a slim, slight figure, deceptively innocent demeanour and long blond hair she seemed more like a saintly Elsa von Brabant than the psycho-sexual daughter of Sodom. 

Herwig Pecoraro (Herod) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Herwig Pecoraro (Herod)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Similar to the younger generation of more sexy then stentorian Salomes such as Catherine Naglestad and Gun-Brit Barkmin, Miss Lindstrom has an impressive floaty top, a solid technique (the one and a half octave arpeggios on “der Kopf des Jochanaan” were flawless) and a steely, ringing high register when required. The vocal demands of the role with its huge range can rarely be perfectly met, but which soprano today can actually sing a low chest note G flat on “Geheimnis des Todes”? Miss Lindstrom was vocally more than satisfactory and the brief naked conclusion to the dance was definitely worth half a Kingdom.

The Staatsoper orchestra under American born modern music specialist Dennis Russell Davies played with even more than its customary élan. The legendary Vienna string sound was ever present, but there was also some fine woodwind playing, especially from the clarinets which ranged from raspy to ravishing depending on the markings of the score. The contrabassoon was suitably ominous and the cacophony of brass and percussion not only roof-raising but remarkable for their rhythmic precision.

Davies’ tempi tended to be on the broad side and considering the huge number of instrumentalists involved, displayed surprising translucency in orchestral colourings.  

This suitably ‘volcanic’ Salome was indeed an exciting experience. Bravi tutti.