A biblical psycho-sex-thriller. A libretto based on one of the most iconic playwright masterpieces. A rich, beautiful, complex score by a musical genius. A night at the opera with Salome has all the characteristics to become an event to remember, and this performance at the Staatsoper Berlin will indeed be hard to forget (although maybe not for all the right reasons).

Aušrinė Stundytė (Salome) and Christian Natter (Oscar Wilde) © Monika Rittershaus
Aušrinė Stundytė (Salome) and Christian Natter (Oscar Wilde)
© Monika Rittershaus

Director Hans Neuenfels chose a modern setting, the costumes (by Reinhard von der Thannen) suggesting the Weimar Republic, all in black and white. The same colour scheme was in the sets, again by von der Thannen, with bright neon lights and a floor in optical pattern, resembling somehow a bathroom renovated in the 1970s. The only splash of colour was represented by a bright red large neon sign saying: “Wilde is here”, announcing the entrance of Oscar Wilde as a non-singing character (Christian Natter).

The production was mainly focused on the pervasive sexual energy in the opera. Salome’s aggressive, raw desire was interpreted as masculine: when she noticed Jochanaan she changed from a large skirt into a slick black suit; at the same moment Wilde arrived, with large testicles protruding from his pants, and the set was completed by the prophet’s jail: a very phallic capsule. Jochanaan, on the contrary, was depicted with feminine traits, his skin painted white, wearing a long gown.

Thomas J Mayer (Jochanaan) © Monika Rittershaus
Thomas J Mayer (Jochanaan)
© Monika Rittershaus

The solution found by Neuenfels for the Seven Veils was to have Salome dance with Oscar Wilde, who was dressed in a sado-masochist outfit; the dance developed into a ritual killing of Wilde, with a cannibalistic twist, when Salome bit into his body. The head of Jochanaan was multiplied in a series of 42 ceramic heads standing on a gigantic chessboard. The visual impact of the production was strong, but the ideas seemed at times confused, at times redundant. Strauss’ music masterfully depicts the sensuous atmosphere, the crazed desire which turns into madness as Salome becomes inebriated by her own newly discovered sexuality. Neuenfels, with his insistence in presenting crude sexual symbols, ends up talking over Strauss, trivialising the music’s exquisite narration, like a pedant explaining the thoughts of a Master.

Aušrinė Stundytė (Salome) and Christian Natter (Oscar Wilde) © Monika Rittershaus
Aušrinė Stundytė (Salome) and Christian Natter (Oscar Wilde)
© Monika Rittershaus

Things were considerably better on the Personenregie front: the direction of the singers was careful and effective; all the performers were committed and believable in their interpretation, which was generally precise and detailed. Vincent Wolfsteiner, in particular, stood out as Herod. He managed to depict every subtle facet of the Tetrarch’s character: ruthless with his soldiers, lecherous and obscene in his fascination with Salome, cold and impatient with his wife. His high, pleasant tenor easily managed the part, for a fully satisfying performance.

Thomas Guggeis proved once again that his talent is not hindered by his young age and relative inexperience. His interpretation was focused and passionate, perhaps lacking some power, but with definite tension and attention to details. The Staatskapelle Berlin was marvellous, especially in the Dance of the Seven Veils, relishing in every detail of the score. The sound was so beautiful that I didn’t mind that the pit overpowered the stage on several occasions.

Gerhard Siegel (Herodes), Aušrinė Stundytė (Salome) and ensemble © Monika Rittershaus
Gerhard Siegel (Herodes), Aušrinė Stundytė (Salome) and ensemble
© Monika Rittershaus

Aušrinė Stundytė gave a powerful interpretation of Salome. Her edgy high notes were very well suited to the part, expressing all the untamed feelings of the wild teenager. The centre of her voice was weaker, and Stundytė resorted, at times, to a sort of almost spoken recitative, which was dramatically very effective. She tired towards the end, and had to catch her breath in order to keep the tension at the right level. But she is a great actress, and her performance was extremely engaging.

Thomas J. Mayer sung a strong Jochanaan, his bass elegant and powerful. His John the Baptist was less of a crazy hermit screaming in the wilderness, and more of a noble, wise prophet. His rejection of Salome felt more like an aristocrat keeping his distance from a disgusting lowlife, than a religious fanatic repressing his own sexual desires.

Annika Schlicht (Page), Christian Natter (Oscar Wilde), Thomas J Mayer (Jochanaan), Aušrinė Stundytė © Monika Rittershaus
Annika Schlicht (Page), Christian Natter (Oscar Wilde), Thomas J Mayer (Jochanaan), Aušrinė Stundytė
© Monika Rittershaus

Herodias was Marina Prudenskaya, her deep, bronzed mezzo very well suited to the part. Among the minor characters, Annika Schlicht stood out as the page.

***11