thu 20/06/2024

Prom 58: Salome, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Runnicles | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 58: Salome, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Runnicles

Prom 58: Salome, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Runnicles

Nina Stemme stuns in a giddying account of Strauss's incredible score

Nina Stemme as Salome: one of the greatest Strauss performances All images Chris Christodoulou/BBC

So here’s where I join the ranks of Old Opera Bores by declaring this Salome, Nina Stemme, the best I’ve seen since Hildegard Behrens in 1978, and this Salome as in Richard Strauss’s Wilde opera from Donald Runnicles and his Deutsche Oper Berlin ensemble categorically the most near-perfect. It’s also the first time I’ve had a group of very loud, rude people behind me shouting “sit down” when I stood at the end (and John the Baptist’s God knows I don’t do that often).

To which the only answers were “stand up yourselves” and “what does it take?” Most of the arena stalls eventually followed suit, but my thinking is, if it’s a thrilling conclusion and you know it’s been as great as they come, don’t wait to see what others are going to do.

But those of you who weren't in the hall will want to know what it was actually like, not least visually since this, of all Proms, isn’t to be televised. After his less-is-more semi-stagings of Wagner with minimal means last year, trumping Bayreuth for the bicentenary, Justin Way has charge of the manoeuvres in the second and third Strauss operas at the Proms in 150th anniversary year. This time, some were singing from scores on stands, which only slightly compromised Burkhard Ulrich’s Herod on the verge of a nervous breakdown – character rather than heroic tenor, but never overdoing the funny-peculiar business; somehow the buttoned-up approach and the DJs of the other score-bound men made sure that wife Herodias – Doris Soffel, the would-be prima donna with her moments in the moonlight – and stepdaughter Salome, Stemme inevitably upstaging mama, had real command of the platform. Their top notes, incidentally, were matched by a major presence in a smaller role, Ronnita Miller as the "Page" who warns lovestruck Narraboth (Thomas Blondelle, as lustrous as any in the only romantic-tenor role) in an opening scene which immediately announced the levels of meaningful commitment.

Samuel Youn as Jokanaan in Salome PromIn a plausibly fluid topography, Samuel Youn’s Jokanaan (pictured right) declaimed not in muffled tones from a cistern but in full resonant prophetic spate from the organ (later that instrument gave a creepier pedal note or two than a portable version in an opera-house pit ever could). Youn kept his distance, histrionically speaking, in repelling the teenage princess’s overheated advances, and signalled a warning crack just before his big curse which opened up alarmingly in a later declamation  – a small price to pay for such a big voice filling the hall so handsomely.

A rim of moon on the LED strip at the back of the platform changed to green and later blood red, which gave us more of Oscar Wilde’s dominant, much invoked presence – Strauss sets most of the original text – than many productions. No props were needed. The cast left the stage for Salome’s Dance, Deutsche Oper soloists including supremely artistic flute, conjuring a levitational delicacy complete with feminine endings when the orientalia turns Viennese-waltzy, and Stemme addressed her "transfiguration through love" compellingly to thin air, conjuring up a severed head as consummately as a first-class Macbeth conjures up an invisible-to-all-others Banquo's ghost.

No limitations bound Stemme’s total assumption. Slinking down from the side steps in a star-spangled black dress, she instantly invoked the spoilt adolescent, first petulant and then obsessive, with authoritative chest voice already at scary odds with both that and the diaphanous orchestral wraps. Hers is one of those rare dramatic sopranos with whom you know you can feel secure in the insane demands on the top of the range and the over-arching phrases: she knows what to do, at every point. And if in the past I think I’ve noted the seams, dramatic characterization and musical expression were absolutely as one last night.

Donald Runnicles conducts Strauss's Salome at the PromsThe final scene where Salome gets what she wants, the head of Jokanaan, and can't at first believe it seesawed us between pity – those rare tears did come to the eyes in Salome’s ache at what might have been – and terror at the imperiousness now exercised on a prophetic face that can’t answer back. Runnicles and his magnificently responsive orchestra similarly pursued the schizoid in Strauss’s ever-breathtaking score – one moment Lehár operetta, the next Schoenbergian atonal expressionism. Were there really 16 first and 14 second violins? The string section looked smaller on the platform, and sounded it only to allow woodwind and brass their head. Shrill clarinets and piccolo bored through the brain, horns reared up collective-cobra-like; the pinched high double-bass note as Salome, gasping inwardly, awaits Jokanaan’s execution that Strauss took from Berlioz had an eerie slide up to it, and dynamic refinement to spare.

Runnicles (pictured above) understands when to tense, release or glide, and how to drop the orchestral levels on the entry of a voice; none of the key moments failed to give goosebumps. After his disappointing Mahler Ninth with an under-engaged BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra earlier at this year's Proms, this was a return to the total mastery of last year’s Tannhäuser. The overriding  impression was one of delicate femininity in ferment. And if this was all about the moon and a love-drunk (or sex-drunk) woman treading the skies, tonight’s Elektra ought to be glaring sun versus blackest night, masculine hard edges – a difficult task to achieve in the Albert Hall. But with this venue, you never can tell. At any rate it did the shot-silk cadences of Salome as proud as the whole ensemble.



Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera (2009). Uneven revival of John Schlesinger’s 25-year-old production

Capriccio, Grange Park Opera (2010). Lively staging, stylish singing and a welcome intrusion of wartime reality

Salome, Royal Opera (2010). Angela Denoke's mercurial Salome (pictured below by Clive Barda) shimmers in Strauss's monstrously beautiful opera

Ariadne auf Naxos, Welsh National Opera (2010). Hoffmansthal's libretto is all about fidelity. This updating is faithful, up to a point

Angela Denoke as Salome at the Royal Opera HouseIntermezzo, Scottish Opera (2011). Soprano Anita Bader graces a Klimtian take on Richard Strauss's domestic comedy

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Mariinsky Opera (2011). Strauss's massive fairy tale makes a rare outing in Gergiev’s musically strong venture at the Edinburgh Festival

Der Rosenkavalier, English National Opera (2012). David McVicar and Edward Gardner deliver a riveting account of Strauss's popular opera with Amanda Roocroft as the Marschallin

Intermezzo, Buxton Festival (2012). Fine style in Strauss's comedy-with-feeling

Ariadne auf Naxos, Glyndebourne Festival Opera (2013). Strauss's opera reluctantly enters the Battle of Britain courtesy of a young German director

Capriccio, Royal Opera (2013). Renée Fleming leads superlative cast in concert performance of Strauss's operatic debate

Elektra, Royal Opera (2013). Revival with Christine Goerke in the title role hits the horrid heart of the matter in Strauss's poleaxing masterpiece

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Royal Opera (2014). Compelling dream-interpretation of Strauss's myth graced by fine singing and Semyon Bychkov’s conducting

Der Rosenkavalier, Glyndebourne (2014). Richard Jones finds new order in rococo comedy for music, with Kate Royal as the Marschallin

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera (2014). Two nymphs are the real revelation in this revival of evergreen hybrid

Salome, Symphony Hall, Birmingham (2015). Lise Lindstrom steals the show from Karabits and Bournemouth SO as a sensual Strauss anti-heroine in concert

Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera (2016). Robert Carsen's handsome production with Renée Fleming is elevated by superb orchestral playing

Runnicles pursued the schizoid in Strauss's ever-breathtaking score - one moment Lehár operetta, the next Schoenbergian atonal expressionism


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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This is the first Salome I have heard. In fact I had never heard it all the way through. I was a bit confused to who has who during the first scene, so I picked up the libretto. From there on in I was sucked in. This is the most dark, disturbing and intense opera I have ever seen. Though written 100 yrs ago this is the Opera for the 21st C. It was like watching an episode of the Kardashians directed by Ken Russell. Think Miley Cyprus is outrageous with her twerking? Well meet Salome with her necrophilia! Incredible cast, especially Doris Soffel as Salome's mum, who has phenomenal stage presence, Nina Stemme is an awesome actress, from where I was sitting when she was coseying up to Jokanaan she looked very sultry. BTW if you heard this on radio, you will never get how big Nina Stemme's voice is, it dwarfed the sound of the orchestra. And I was at the back. An incredible night. Not a bad for 20 quid!

So it seems I'm not the only one who can't sleep for the charge-up of it all. 21st century indeed: you should see the blood in David McVicar's Royal Opera production on DVD (though I can't recommend the Salome).

And you think you were lucky to get it for £20: think of the Arena standees who were closest to one of the great performances for a mere £5. This might be the place to add that I took the godson (21), his first Salome, and he was so riveted that he didn't use the libretto. I think - though of course I know it as he did not - that much would have been apparent in the delivery.


I was at the prom, and I completely agree with what you say. The singing was outstanding, matched by lustrous orchestral playing. The organ note you mentioned I could feel, but barely hear, as it was so low. I will be interested in listening again to see if the radio microphones actually picked it up. Herodias and Salome characterised their parts particularly wonderfully. A great evening.

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