There was no shortage of drama running up to the opening of the Staatsoper’s new Salome. First the original conductor, Zubin Mehta, had to pull out, replaced a couple of months ago on the Spielplan by Christoph Dohnányi. Then, just a matter of days before the first night, Dohnányi was replaced with the 24-year-old Thomas Guggeis (assisting on the production, and already slated to conduct the final performance in the run). The reason given: artistic differences between the 88-year-old Dohnányi and the 76-year-old Hans Neuenfels, in charge of the production.

Ausrine Stundyte (Salome) and Christian Natter (Oscar Wilde) © Monika Rittershaus
Ausrine Stundyte (Salome) and Christian Natter (Oscar Wilde)
© Monika Rittershaus

If this created expectations of a shocking or particularly controversial staging from the septuagenarian enfant terrible, however, these were to be disappointed. Or, rather, Neuenfels offered little that had any more ability to shock that what Wilde and Strauss themselves provide.

We have a single set (by Reinhard von der Thannen), its sides curving seductively, its upper limit marked off – somewhat less seductively – by a silvery pipe. Above a shiny, patterned floor dangles a stubby, similarly silvery phallus, from which Jochanaan addresses us through a porthole. The only relief from the set’s 50 shades of grey, coolly lit by Stefan Bolliger, comes in the form of Narraboth’s scarlet turban and the red neon ‘Wilde is coming’ sign that descends just before Jochanaan is let out. ‘Wilde’ does indeed appear, as an actor (Christian Natter) sporting a pair of (also silvery) testicles outside of his trousers, just in time to let the prophet out of his metallic container.

Ausrine Stundyte (Salome) and Christian Natter (Oscar Wilde) © Monika Rittershaus
Ausrine Stundyte (Salome) and Christian Natter (Oscar Wilde)
© Monika Rittershaus

There’s a fair bit of cross-dressing and dress-swapping in costumes (also by von der Thannen) that offer a mixture of Weimar cabaret and 1930s desert fatigues, with the royal family very much in the former camp. Marina Prudenskaya’s fruity Herodias wears a plunging sequinned number, Gerhard Siegel’s forthright Herod a dinner jacket. Ausrine Stundyte’s Salome is gamine and androgynous, fluid in character and gender, and – by extension – slippery and ill-defined as a dramatic entity.

Indeed, the production as a whole, though handsome to look at, never quite seems to work out what it’s about. Jochanaan’s container is simply wheeled off once it has served its purpose, and, in what feels like a strangely non-committal gesture, Neuenfels has Salome conventionally despatched by the soldiers at the close – the only digression from what’s in the libretto was that our princess was stabbed to death, rather than crushed.

Ausrine Stundyte (Salome) © Monika Rittershaus
Ausrine Stundyte (Salome)
© Monika Rittershaus

When it comes to the climax of the work, meanwhile, the production resolutely undercuts the visceral power that oozes from every note of the score. For the dance, Salome is led around by the stage by ‘Wilde’, here appearing in a bizarre sort of fetish outfit – sparkly corset, death mask – that seems rather worryingly and lazily to conflate homosexuality with perversion. For the final scene, a couple of dozen artificial heads are wheeled out on something like a vast macabre draughts board, with Salome picking her way among them.

It offers a striking image, no doubt, but a cool, uninvolving one. Part of reason this scene was a disappointment, however, came down to Stundyte’s vocal performance. Dramatically there was no faulting her commitment, but hers is not a voice with much shimmer or allure up top; and it is fatally underpowered in its lower register, swoopy in the mid-range. She made her way around the notes and the words respectably enough, but never really grabbed hold of them. Thomas J. Mayer’s Jochanaan was much better, powerfully sung and acted with intensity. Nikolai Schukoff constituted an unusual bit of luxury casting as Narraboth, but he sang very impressively. Among the smaller roles, Arttu Kataja stood out as the First Soldier, as did Adam Kutny as the First Nazarene.

Nikolai Schukoff (Narraboth), Ausrine Stundyte (Salome) and Thomas J. Mayer (Jochanaan) © Monika Rittershaus
Nikolai Schukoff (Narraboth), Ausrine Stundyte (Salome) and Thomas J. Mayer (Jochanaan)
© Monika Rittershaus

In the pit, meanwhile, Guggeis showed that he’s clearly an enormous talent. At this second performance things got off to a slightly shaky start, but soon settled into an account of impressive focus and pacing. Others have created a greater sense of cumulative weight and tension, perhaps, but this was a performance, played with relish and virtuosity, that brought out all the lurid details of this fabulous score excitingly.