Gun-Brit Barkmin makes a powerful Salome at Carnegie Hall
The Vienna Philharmonic seemed to take up nearly every available inch of stage at Carnegie Hall Saturday night for Richard Strauss’s Salome. Soloists were placed on risers squeezed onto either side of the stage—not the most conducive setup for emotional interaction. But Strauss’s genius overrode the obstacles, bolstered by a generally superb cast and the Philharmonic in peak form under the thrilling leadership of Andris Nelsons.
Part of New York’s three-week-long “Vienna: City of Dreams” festival, this Vienna State Opera concert performance followed the festival’s equally memorable Wozzeck performance the previous night. Those lucky enough to attend both were left feeling giddy and spoiled, exhausted and exhilarated.
Even the best conductors risk smothering their singers in Salome; Strauss’s enormous orchestra often tends to overpower soloists during forte climaxes. Although Nelsons did not completely avoid this trap, he clearly seemed aware of such pitfalls. The Philharmonic glowed under his inspired direction, which highlighted Strauss’s endlessly inventive mixing of sweetness and shock. Jochanaan’s execution, in particular, was exquisitely suspenseful, and when his head was at last thrust up out of the cistern, the orchestral explosion rattled Carnegie’s roof.
A star was born with the evening’s Salome, Gun-Brit Barkmin. Her jet-black Louise Brooks bob held back by a forehead bandeau and her svelte body draped in a creation clearly inspired by the pre-World War I gowns of Paul Poiret, she managed to project a wonderfully physicalized performance within the concert-opera confines. Her voice is enormous, and it cut effortlessly through Strauss’s orchestration. Its timbre is not always beautiful, particularly at the top, where there is some stridency, but when she pulls back she is able to sound lovely and lyrical, and more girlish than many of the mature Salomes we are used to hearing. When it was necessary, she hit the role’s sepulchral low notes, which is not something that every Salome can manage.
Falk Struckmann, originally announced as Jochanaan, had to withdraw due to illness. He was replaced by Polish-born bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, who—along with such compatriots as Piotr Beczala, Mariusz Kwiecien, and Ewa Podles—gives one the sense that we have entered a new Golden Age of Polish singers. Konieczny thundered majestically in commanding, oaken tones, and had no trouble lightening his voice for the brief lyrical passages. He made one wish Strauss had written more for Jochanaan.
As Herod, Gerhard A. Siegel clearly hated being confined to the narrow performing space and seemed desperate for a full staging. He was acutely present and alive in his characterization and phrasing, reveling in the role’s debauchery and hysteria, and the “ping” of his tenor made every word tell. Narraboth was Carlos Osuna, whose firmly-placed voice carried well, particularly in the rhapsodic upper reaches of this brief role. Ulrike Helzel made a strong impression with the brief, pleading utterances of the Page.
The cast’s only weak link was the Herodias, Jane Henschel. Recordings from the 1980s show that she began her career sounding like that rarest of birds: a genuine contralto. Time has lightened and raised her instrument. Though she still specializes in Herodias, Clytemnestra, and Die Amme in Die Frau ohne schatten, she sounds almost like a soprano now. There no longer seems to be much strength in her lower register, and during this performance she frequently lost the battle with Strauss’s heavy orchestration. On the plus side, she gave a fully committed performance, vividly and spitefully interacting with Herod.