In this year’s summer Salzburg Festival, the most expected production in my opinion was Richard Strauss’s atonal opera Salome. If you are not familiar with the opera, here is the link to read all about it.
Under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst, Wiener Philharmoniker was extra-ordinary. With the help of the great acoustics of the Haus für Mozart, I did feel every crescendo in my bones. It was a wonderful experience. It is not easy to be heard in wonderful way over the fortissimo of this orchestra, but Asmik Gregorian was perfect as a Salome. One of the hardest roles in opera repertory, she sang the role so well that you can mistake her singing a Mozart aria instead of an atonal piece. I cannot say that Gabor Bretz gave a perfect Jochanaan, there was something unconvincing in his voice for this role.
Now let’s get into the production. When it is Salome, my expectations are set very high due to the wonderful production of David McVicar. Although I left the opera with a great satisfaction, unfortunately it was not caused by Castellucci’s production. Asmik Gregorian is the essential element of the success as well as the applause.
Before the curtain is open, ‘Te Saxa Loquuntur’ (The Stones Speak of You) was written on the curtain. The same sentence is written at the entrance of the tunnel in Salzburg. Later when the curtain opens, the stone structure that resembles the tunnel surroundings embraces us.
When I am encountered some hint about the staging before the beginning, I am expecting it will be a huge part of the production. Because you stare at this sentence for like twenty minutes, you feel that you have to understand what it means, you go through the program notes and everything, and there is no connection to the story.. At least, I couldn’t think of it yet. We saw Salome in a wedding dress, she lifted a sword and the word ‘loquuntur’ is divided in a horizontal half.
At the first glimpse, we saw people cleaning the blood on the floor and some dead bodies in a plastic bag on the stage. First, I immediately wonder if it is a reference to the gas chambers like in McVicar production, but I concluded it isn’t. Bodies are carried by some people during the act. I just assumed that there are many murders commited here and that’s all.
Except for Salome and Jochanaan, everybody’s face is painted in the half. I don’t know if it’s serve anything than losing the charaters on the stage since they all look exactly the same. For me, Narraboth is a very important role, his line feels most melodic to my ears everytime he adores Salome. Personally, I am nor comfortable Narraboth staring at her in a different angle, her entering the scene from a whole different angle. But the main thing that makes me very uncomfortable is that the characters sometimes lay down on the floor and stay still, what is that all about ? We know that he’s not dead yet, he lays down, then he stands up sings his part and goes down again. It was felt like a undermining of the character to me.
After Salome begged Narraboth to see Jochanaan, some soil appeared near the Jochanaan’s hole. Also, from beginning to end, some characters continue to bring and take objects to the background. Salome stands in her arms and legs like a horse, takes a saddle to her back and pretends to be a horse (saddle is one of the things that they brought to the stage at one point). Then, an actual horse appears on the stage from the Jochanaan’s hole and turns around while Salome dances on her back with her feets. I actually laughed at that point, why we see a horse at the ground level of a palace? Horse actually has a significance for the production since we saw it in later references as well. When Jochanaan comes to the stage, he has a black paint all over his face and a fadder in his head while holding a drum with a fadder in his hand. That person really didn’t convince me to be a prophet with his attitude and costume. When the first appearance of the Jochanaan the lightening was really good and it increased our anticipation to see Jochanaan. This makes us feel the excitation of Salome to look into his eyes. When he climbing from the stage, a dark circle started to grow from Jochanaan’s spot and expend to the whole stage eventually. Than it started to get smaller, and at one point it only existed around the head of Jochanaan like a saint signature.
When Herodes enters the scene, there was some giant glass or trophy (I couldn’t decide what it is). When they come, they brought some furniture with them (and take them back although the plot was not changing place). Also, since this is a place where Salome briefly stops to sing, a white dressed girl entered and stayed at the corner as a Salome (we understand this when Herodes points her as Salome) and we saw Asmik to go to the backstage. Than, she comes back (not from a side door or anything, right in the middle of the stage) and take her place. Does she desperately requested to go to the backstage? Because this was really disturbing.
While Jews were discussing, there was frozen boxers in the background. Really. Also they brought Jochanaan out of the hole (with wooden stairs that you see, and carefully watch three actors climb the stairs and stop following the actual scene) and wash him with water. These actors later remove some parts from Herodes’s circle and place them in the back. Again, audience watched them try to balance the parts. It was really hard to focus on the actual scene when too many things happen on the stage.
Let’s come to the first disappointment: Dance of The Seven Veils. This scene is really open to interesting interpretations through staging. But here, we saw no dancing. Salome just get undressed (only underwear) and climb into a stone that says ‘saxa’ on it. Again, the stone reference. Then crawled there, some woman take a black ribbon and place it around her. That’s all, she just stayed there. At the end, some big stone approached from above, take her inside and climb back to the air. Salome was then seem to be disappeared. She just came back with her dress on from the below part. No reference to the seven sins, no reference to the Herodes’s desire, Salome’s true intention.. nothing..
While Herodes are offering his fortune instead of Jochanaan’s head to Salome, some people dragged dead bodies in colored bags to the scene. Was that supposed to scare Salome? At the end, dead bodies just stood up, and exit the scene. Really, no place for me to believe in any of the acting on the stage as if they are deliberately saying this is all acting.
When Salome asked for Jochanaan’s head, some actors filled the Jochanaan’s hole with milk. Salome then played with the milk. At that point, some men tried to fill the missing places in Herodes’s place (due to the removed parts) with gold, but hole never filled. Really, I didn’t understand the point. Just lots of action, but no point.
-Drumrolls- When Salome finally get her desire.. She gets everything but Jochanaan’s head. We never saw the head. They just brought the rest of the body! Salome first puts her throne above the headless body. Then she puts horse head above the body (they brought severed horse head to the stage – but since they placed it very strange, not until the end I understand that was a horse head. Salome never kisses Jochanaan, just at the end we saw her kissing his imaginary head. Meanwhile, some sort of balloon starts to get filled at the righthand side of the stage. It got bigger and bigger. What was that, I really couldn’t understand. All of this time, Salome was alone in the stage. Herodes and Herodias just came to the stage when they sing and left right after that. We didn’t see how they are surprised from Salome’s act. When Herodes ordered to kill Salome, he blow up the balloon. Salome goes to a small hole filled with water.
I think bringing the Jochanaan’s body instead of his head was really surprising. It was an innovation for Salome, the missing object of the whole opera didn’t appear at all. But rather than try to understand the meaning, audience was lost between milk, water, horse, jazz band, boxers, balloons… The feeling I got was ‘with this much budget, I can use the stage this much’. Everything opened, filled… As if they did everything for audience not to focus on singer on the stage.. While you look other place, you see all the Jews at the ground, then they stand up and continue.. It is clear that staging is not the successful part of this production.. But musically it was above all expectations..