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Vienna: City of Dreams—Gun-Brit Barkman and Vienna State Opera Redefine Salome

by Michael Cirigliano II

Vienna State Opera, Salome, Carnegie Hall

Photo credit: Chris Lee, WQXR

With the wealth of talent that flies in and out of Carnegie Hall on a regular basis, it's hard for any one group to stand apart from the pack, even for a world-class ensemble like the Vienna Philharmonic. What better way to diversify this group's talents, though, than to take two performances out of their three-week-long series, Vienna: City of Dreams, and showcase their "other" job as the house band for the Vienna State Opera. During Saturday evening's concert performance of Richard Strauss' genre-bending 1905 opera, Salome, the mighty Philharmonic players, under the baton of Andris Nelsons, transformed themselves into a savage, monstrous orchestral force to be reckoned with. There are special nights at Carnegie, and then there are nights like these.

Nothing about Strauss' 90-minute masterpiece was standard for the time (or even for today): a biblical storyline transcribed by the then-degenerate literary figure Oscar Wilde; an onstage striptease; an offstage beheading; sexual interest between a stepfather and his stepdaughter (take that, Mr. Allen!); and a leading role that spends over 75 percent of the running time on stage. Add to this a post-Wagnerian sense of constantly shifting chromatic harmony, and you have a recipe for disaster—or, rather, incredible success. (The 1906 Austrain premiere in Graz was the talk of the continent, with none other than Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, and even a young Hitler reportedly in attendance.)

Over 100 years later, the opera still grips audiences with its bloody, majestic hand. Andris Nelsons (who will step to the podium as the Boston Symphony's new music director next season) led the orchestra and singers through a pristine account of the score. Despite the size of the 80-plus orchestra, textures and inner voices were as crystalline as this reviewer has ever heard. From the first serpentine scale in the clarinet through the violent attack on Salome by Herod's soldiers that closes the opera, every moment was sublimely paced and effortlessly musical.

The vocal star of the evening was Salome herself, Gun-Brit Barkman—who, with her Weimar-era Sally Bowles hair and Aubrey Beardsley-esque gown, looked (and sounded) like she was born to play the part. Unlike the heavier-toned sopranos that have affixed their names to this role, Barkman's soprano was lighter—a silvery tone that never failed to project above the orchestral forces below her (all of the singers were perched above the orchestra on platforms flanking either side of the stage). Mixed with an amazing sense of dramatic urgency, Barkman embodied the selfish and head-strong teenager well, moving from her initial lusty overtones to Tomasz Konieczny's robust Jochanan to complete ecstasy once she had finally kissed her beloved's severed head.

Rounding out the cast was Gerhard Siegel's frustrated Herod, his maniacal tenor giving voice to a monarch robbed of any sense of power by those around him; Ulrike Helzel's eloquent performance as Herodias' page; and Carlos Osuna as the lovelorn Narraboth, the doomed captain of the guard whose unrequited love for Salome leads to a bloody end halfway through the opera. The only one not up to the challenge of projecting through the massive orchestra was Jane Henschel's Herodias. Aside from looking like Everybody Loves Raymond's Doris Roberts in a red caftan, Henschel provided comedic elements that were lost in her lack of projection.

Stepping away from the hall that evening, it was hard to tell which sounds had caused the most seismic activity that night: the Philharmonic's brutal outbursts or the thunderous applause of a completely awestruck audience.