When Richard Strauss first wrote Salome, he was unable to get it performed in his home city of Vienna, so shocking was the material with its heavy eroticism and necrophiliac ending (the première was in Dresden). A century on, times are more permissive, and Salome features in the seasons both of Vienna's Volksoper and of the Staatsoper, where we saw it last night.

© Michael Poehn
© Michael Poehn

In a previous review, I've remarked on Salome's extraordinary orchestration, that hearing this opera is like listening to a fabulous tone poem with the intricacy of the string writing and the power of the brass. Peter Schneider and the Vienna State Opera orchestra gave us that experience with both barrels. Strauss's music follows the mood of the words tightly, from Narraboth's yearning for the beautiful Princess that he cannot have to the religious squabbles of the Jews to the stentorian tones of the prophet Jokanaan, and the orchestra gave us colour, phrase and enormous power.

Unfortunately, the power came at a high price: the singers were totally overwhelmed. I struggled constantly to hear the singers of the four main roles above the torrent of sound, and some of the smaller parts, such as Juliette Mars as the Page, were barely audible at all. The effect probably wasn't helped by the relative shallowness of the Staatsoper's orchestra pit, and it may have been particularly bad in our seats at the back of the Parterre (it's my first visit here, so I don't know the house well enough to be sure) but from my position, the misbalance was extreme.

All of which was a pity, since as far as I could hear it, the singing was really rather good. Camilla Nylund's voice is clear, smooth and flexible, without a hint of harshness in the high notes. With long blonde hair and slim features, she looked every bit the unattainable princess, and she acted the spoilt teenager well, appearing to remain totally unaware of the consequences of her actions, indeed unaware of anything except "I want this, so I expect to be given it" until the final moment of the opera where she is crushed by the shields of Herod's soldiers. Markus Marquardt's Jokanaan was smooth and strong as he captured the prophet's aloofness from the mortal world around him.

Jürgen Rose's set was a richly decorated walled garden, with costumes definitely of the biblical period: the soldiers in full Roman armour, the Jews in flowing robes, Herod and Herodias in opulent gowns with a faint oriental flavour. Generally, the production followed the action fairly straightforwardly, with none of the additional effects that many directors use to emphasise the shock value - in fact, shock value was kept under a tight rein, with no blood in sight either from Narraboth's suicide or from Jokanaan's severed head, which merely showed as a mass of hair on its silver salver. If you like productions which leave it all to the music, this will have suited you; if you prefer something edgy and innovative, you will have found it all a little tame.

All in all, then, a flawed evening: an adequate production, good singing and phenomenal orchestral playing, marred by the orchestra being far louder than the singers could cope with. It makes me no less fond of Salome as an opera, but I wish that more care had been taken with the sound check.