Review: Strauss’ Salome / Opéra national de Paris

Opéra national de Paris/Bastille, Paris, 25 May 2024

Richard Strauss: Salome

The premiere of Richard Strauss’ Salome in 1905 at the Königliches Opernhaus in Dresden (now the Semperoper) provoked a wide range of reactions, both highly enthusiastic and sharply critical. Many found Salome morally offensive and inappropriate for the stage, and the opera faced bans and restrictions in various cities. The mixed reactions, ranging from enthusiastic praise to moral outrage, underlined the provocative nature of the work and its challenge to contemporary artistic norms. The reaction to Salome influenced Strauss’s subsequent compositions, encouraging him to continue exploring complex psychological themes and pushing the boundaries even more, as later heard in Elektra.

Now at the Opéra national de Paris/Bastille, Lydia Steier’s production of Salome from the 2022/23 season is revived. I have seen many productions of Salome through the last decade, but to be honest, this is the first time I have left a performance of the opera with such strong impressions that I could really feel the reactions after Salome’s premiere over a century ago. Steier’s production is grotesque, making a modern Caligula out of Herodes: cruel, sadistic, extravagant and sexually perverse – taking everything to a bizarre level of decadence, the “Dance of the Seven Veils” is transformed into a bloody gang rape of Salome, with Momme Hinrichs’ set providing a suitable environment for this idea. Jochanaan is imprisoned in a cave lift, and Salome ends her final scene by lifting him to the top of the stage. The production is brutal, visually powerful, creative and overall very convincing.

In the orchestra pit, Mark Wigglesworth gives an interpretation full of dramatic intensity, precisely balancing Strauss’ dense and complex orchestration. He also demonstrates excellent dynamic control, never overpowering the singers on stage and allowing their voices to flourish even in the most intense, climactic moments.

Ekaterina Gubanova and Gerhard Siegel give equally brilliant performances as Herodias and Herodes respectively. Gubanova has an expressive mezzo that strongly characterises her role, while Siegel’s powerfully penetrating character tenor is perfectly suited to the dominant, manipulative Herodes. Johan Reuter is also convincing as Jochanaan, as are the singers in the other minor roles.

In the title role, one of today’s biggest superstars, Lise Davidsen, makes her role debut. She is simply a vocal phenomenon. Her voice has the volume, the power (which she never tries to force) and the nuances – in all registers. But somehow this kind of vocal/technical perfection has overshadowed any personal depth of interpretation. She rarely takes risks, and that makes it is difficult to find anything particularly personal in her Salome. However, I suppose she is taking care of her very valuable instrument and thinking about its longevity. At the end, though, she got a standing ovation, the likes of which I have rarely seen before.

Photo: Charles Duprat / OnP

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