Salome, Deutsche Oper, BBC Prom 58, Royal Albert Hall, review: 'overwhelming'

Donald Runnicles
The Telegraph

A supremely confident interpretation of Richard Strauss's decadent masterpiece 

By Rupert Christiansen 

She made us believe. By the alchemy of the performer’s art, Nina Stemme – offstage a brisk and respectable Swedish mum of 51 with an MBA – slipped on to the platform transformed into the teenage Jewish princess whose killer combination of nascent sexuality and spoilt-brat obstinacy motivates Strauss’s compellingly decadent masterpiece.

There were no histrionics, no gimmicks: Stemme’s figure is slender and her hair is worn loose, but she doesn’t prance around or flirt with seven veils. Instead she maintains a steely poise throughout, chillingly suggestive of the relentless tick-tocking of Salome’s tiny mind.

Nor did Stemme play games with her voice. Yes, the timbre lacks laser penetration, and there were times in the early scenes when words were obscured in the orchestral maelstrom. But she never wavered, never forced: the tone and tuning remained rock-solid, as Salome bided her time and hatched her plan while all around her shrieked and panicked and argued.

This emotional reserve paid dividends in a thrillingly magnificent account of the final scene, where Stemme seemed to deliquesce in an orgasm of toxic sadism that melted into a weirdly empty post-coital serenity. Here was a demonstration of the greatest dramatic soprano of our day at the peak of her powers.

The cast, orchestra and conductor had been imported from the Deutsche Oper Berlin. A slight disappointment was Samuel Youn’s Jokanaan – too relentlessly granitic (apart from one appalling crack) to provide any sense of the repressed sexuality which should make the encounter with Salome so gripping.

But I have never witnessed a more plausibly horrible Herod and Herodias than those of Burkhard Ulrich and Doris Soffel, both of whom perfectly judged the level of black comic exaggeration required, and they were impressively surrounded by a retinue of fine bass and tenor young voices embodying the attendant Jews, Nazarenes and Soldiers.

Donald Runnicles conducted the superb Deutsche Oper orchestra: Strauss is their home territory, and they inhabit this score with supreme confidence, fielding its challenges with playing of almost insouciant virtuosity. From my seat in the stalls, I sometimes wondered whether they had the measure of the Albert Hall’s peculiar acoustics, but nothing could diminish the performance’s overwhelming impact.