The previous reviewer has provided a useful synopsis of the opera, so I will comment on the virtues of this particular performance. Solti's recording has become legendary in the nearly half century that has elapsed since its first appearance on LP, and has kept its place at the head of the catalogue. Its cast is headed by Birgit Nilsson, to many at that time the supreme exponent of Wagner's and Strauss's dramatic soprano roles. Her powerful voice soars effortlessly into the stratosphere, yet she shades it down to kittenish proportions when she seeks to persuade the lovestruck captain Narraboth to bring forth the prophet for her inspection. There are fine perfomances from Waechter (exceeded only by Bryn Terfel for Sinopoli) as the prophet Jokanaan; from Grace Hoffmann, a very down-to-earth Herodias, impatient with her husband's flights of fancy, who injects one of the few moments of sanity in this intensely neurotic atmosphere. Gerhart Stoltze's Herod is a marvel: he cajoles, pleads, implores his implacable step-daughter not to proceed with her grotesque demand - anything, anything, but not the prophet's head. Culshaw's production skilfully tracks Herod's increasing desperation, with his premonition of disaster turning to nightmare and trauma, one of the great moments in opera recording history.
Strauss's operatic version of Oscar Wilde's original play is replete with unsettling sounds and images: Jokanaan's prophecies and imprecations thundering out of the pit in which he is being held, the unbearable tension when the executioner descends to kill him, just to mention two instances. The recording captures the seedy decadence of the court, the superstitious fears of Herod, and Salome's unhealthy and rampant sexual obsession with Jokanaan, culminating in the necrophilia of the final scene which so angered censors when it was premiered in 1905. However, to modern audiences, the 'moralistic' despatch of Salome by the disgusted Herod at the end of the opera is the one false note in the overall dramaturgy.
One of the great opera recordings of the last century
on 20 November 2014
Not quite 5 stars, because for the most part I waver between loving this recording and just liking it, and there are some details I'm not so keen on. The good thoughts first. As one would expect, Birgit Nilsson as Salome is well up to the vocal demands of her role. She sings beautifully, spinning a focused incisive silver thread of tone, she sounds girlish and naive on the one hand, voluptuous and demanding on the other. As the object of her 'affections' Eberhard Waechter (Jochanaan) sounds virile and noble in his holy utterances, and disgusted at Salome's unwanted advances. Gerhard Stolze uses his distinctive, incisive tenor to good effect as Herod, making a strong impression. Grace Hoffman is an emphatic Herodias.
The Vienna Philharmonic play excellently, and one is immediately transported to a balmy night in the Holy Lands by the sensuous, delicately played opening melody. For the most part, Georg Solti's conducting is excellent if a bit on the heavyweight side, and he can whip up some huge orchestral climaxes. His reading is at times transparent with lots of delicate orchestral detail, other times it's very dense, quite darkly coloured, and loud. Very loud. The ferocity and violence of some aspects of Solti's reading, and sheer volume of the orchestra, can be a bit overpowering in some passages. As good as this CD set is, it is definitely not a recording to relax to. As already mentioned, there are some details I'm not so keen on. The percussion at the start of the Dance of the Seven Veils is woolly and taken at a frantic tempo out of context with the rest of it, so loses any impact. When the orchestra suddenly wells up as Jochanaan's head is served, in the first of a series of huge climaxes, there should be a huge crash of cymbals. No pun intended but the orchestra should take your head off at this point. On this recording the cymbals are not distinctive, if there at all, and the effect is lost. There is also a general sense of wanting less darkness in the orchestra at times
Sound quality on this early 1960s Decca stereo studio recording is excellent. Recorded balance favours the orchestra, but for the most part the singers are clear. There is a mild cavernous effect for the encisterned Jokanaan. The booklet includes some notes, a synopsis, libretto and translation (with plenty of thees thys and sires but no matter).
Despite the excellent sound, and orchestral volume and detail on this recording, personal first choice remains the live 1965 Buenos Aires performance also with Nilsson (superb, better than for Solti) Waechter and Hoffman, and Fritz Uhl another characterful Herod, brilliantly conducted by Georges Sebastian, complete with a better Dance of the Seven Veils (solid percussion and all) and the orchestra really does take your head off as Jochanaan's is served (Ornamenti 2CDs if you can find a copy). I would also not want to be without the ultimate Salome interpreter Ljuba Welitsch in the New York 1949 performance under Fritz Reiner's expert direction, the blistering New York 1958 performance with Inge Borkh and Dimitri Mitropoulos's incendiary conducting (please see my reviews if interested) or the 1978 Chicago Lyric Opera performance with an outstanding cast, Grace Bumbry (Salome) trills beautifully with a sumptous mezzo-ish lustre, Norman Bailey, Ragnar Ulfung and Mignon Dunn. One of course has to compromise on expectations in terms of sound compared to the studio recording but it is great to have such a choice of versions of this truly excellent music.
Disclaimer: Please note this review is for Salome with Nilsson, Waechter, Stolze and Resnik, VPO studio recording, Solti, Decca The Originals 2CDs. If it appears with another recording, Amazon's systems have incorrectly linked it.
on 28 November 2007
No overture. Straight into the first scene. The Jews are rowdy in the back. John the Baptist is the cause of it. He is preaching from the cistern where he is kept a prisoner. It is forbidden to look at him or have any contact with him.
But Salome comes and she wants to see him, speak to him. She goes down into the cistern and finally forces the soldiers to bring John out.
The music replaces words. A volcanic eruption of dark and particularly strong sounds that are chaotic in their organization to lead to a cool moment of violins that evoke the sanctity of the man coming out of the cistern. And the horns introduce John's first prophecy of the coming of Jesus and of his public death.
Then he accuses Salome's mother of having betrayed her Jewish blood by marrying the king. Salome is mesmerized and starts seeing visions of dark countries and dragons. Then she discovers his body and transmutes it into an ivory statue. John rejects Salome's eyes and looking. Salome introduces herself. He rejects her, sends her back to the Babylon she represents, to Sodom whose daughter she is.
And back to his prophecy about the Son of Man. Salome has fallen into total love and she wants to touch him and asks for permission. John rejects her in the name of Babylon and as a woman who brought evil on earth. Salome then describes John's body as the nest of all kinds of snakes and scorpions. She shifts her interest to his hair and becomes lyrical in the most powerful tradition of Solomon's Song of Songs. She begs for his permission to touch his hair. He refuses.
Then Salome describes his hair as a crown of thorns and moves to his mouth that she compares to roses and pomegranates, concentrating on its red color. She wants to kiss him. Total rejection. She becomes hysterical. The music and singing are so abysmally chaotic that we have reached the primeval mess before creation.
Third prophecy about Jesus in front of whom she should kneel and beg for forgiveness. But she persists in her desire. This time John curses her to damnation and the music takes us down into the innerest circle of hell. A long musical transition to the fourth last and longest scene. Here are Herod and Herodias. Herod reveals himself as very unstable, afraid and dependent on his daughter.
She refuses to drink wine, eat a fruit, sit on the throne. John sings his prophecy again. Herod and Herodias have an argument about Herod's fear in front of John. The Jews enter and assails Herod with a long discussion among them on God, his coming back and what has to be done to escape from his anger, to obey and follow his rule. John brings his prophecy forward again about the Savior of the world. Some Nazarene tells the story of that Savior who is to come to save the world.
Herod thinks John and the Nazarene are resuscitating dead people. John amplifies the prophecy with the description of the death of the Savior and all the plagues that will befall the world. Herod wants Salome to dance for him and with John's voice in the background, he promises her anything she wants. A harsh debate takes place between Herodias who does not want her daughter to dance and Herod who wants her to do so.
Herod is losing his mind's clarity. John's voice and some more prophecy about Jesus' passion. Salome finally accepts to dance. The music then is an exotic mixture of various styles from oriental music to Slavonic vast sweeping movements and some western elements including some waltz measures and castanets. It sounds like music from the world where only pleasure, i.e. whimsical desires, reign ahigh. Salome ends at Herod's feet.
She asks for a silver platter and for John's head on it. Herod refuses and Herodias supports her daughter. Herod must be thinking of the Jews. Herodias wants her vengeance against John who called her a whore. Salome wants to punish John who rejected her. Herod is also afraid of John being moved by God. She refuses anything else. Herod is then convinced something absolutely catastrophic is going to happen.
Salome describes the beheading. And there appears the head on a silver platter. She wants to kiss him now and she is disturbed by his closed eyes and his silent tongue. She finds out to possess his body in sexual domination has not been satisfied by the beheading since the voice and the look are gone. She comes to the strange conclusion that love is stronger than the mystery of death.
Salome kisses the dead head and finds nothing except the pleasure of having kissed these lips that were refusing her. But at this moment Herod is maybe caught up by one moment of sanity and has Salome killed by the soldiers. This opera is remarkable by the way the subject is treated but also by the strange absolute merging of music and voices. The voices carry a semantic meaning but are integrated in the music as pure sound, they are part of the music and they add a supplementary level of meaning and the meaning becomes part of the music.
We reach the highest level of music we can think of when plot and semantic content are also part of the music as music. The harmony of the plot appears fully in the end. The harmony of each piece of text appears fully as part of the blended music and sounds in each scene.
And that is a choice. No overture, no real closing piece that is not integrating the voices of the characters, Salome and Herod and the action itself. The last measure is Salome's death cry.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU