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A dream deferred

That’s more like it! On Saturday night, the day after a Wozzeck somewhat short on thrills, the “Vienna: City of Dreams” festival at Carnegie Hall continued, with Andris Nelsons leading the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of Salome that provided just the sort of thing one hopes for in a concert performance of an overflowingly rich operatic score.  

This was music with the lid off, free of the stage that can interfere so much. Instrumental colors glowed like Northern Lights in both familiar and infrequently detected tints and shades, from bassoons and low horns to twining woodwinds, sprightly harps, clattering percussion. This backed a cast of thrilling singers, once again on platforms on either side of the orchestra, but more rationally divided: minor figures on our right, leads on our left, Jokanaan around a corner and out the door much of the time.

The vocal star of the evening was the Salome of Gun-Brit Barkmin, a German soprano who performs a great many Britten, Janacek, Strauss and Weill roles. Her voice is cool, dark and even, very beautiful and deceptively “slight” in order to portray a young girl. Barkmin is less inclined to fight or slash through the enormous orchestra than to ride gracefully over its outbursts.

She only seemed to tire at the end of this long and complex role, and this was apparent only in a slight uncertainty of support for long arched phrases that had earlier come quite easily to her. Hers was an earthy Salome rather than the ghostly, desperate spirit of a Welitsch or a Rysanek or the silvery cry of Stratas in the Götz Friedrich film.

Besides singing magnificently, Barkmin acted the part with an enthusiastic display of adolescent petulance, flirting with Narraboth, fan-girling all over Jochanaan, teasing Herod with a toss of her head. She looked mightily chic and Beardsley-esque, an Edward Gorey flapper, in a silver sheathe covere by a long black diaphanous overmantel covered with silvery lunar medallions, a jeweled band circling her dark pageboy bob.

It was of great help to her performance, no doubt, and to our grasp of Strauss’s opera that she shared her stage-platform with Herod (Gerhard A. Siegel) and Herodias (Jane Henschel). Jochanaan (Tomasz Konieczny), having been fetched from his offstage cistern, stood on the other platform, across the stage, for his duet at cross purposes with the princess. Siegel’s Herod was tipsy but not a lascivious caricature; he did not sing in the cartoonish manner of some Herods.

Henschel was the traditional, complacent, bitchy Herodias: She got a laugh for “Der Mond ist der Mond—das ist Alles,” and her vocalism was room-filling. Konieczny, a late substitution for an indisposed Falk Struckmann, sang an occasionally gravelly Jochanaan, somewhat out of place among the smooth, party-going courtiers making up the rest of the cast—which is quite proper for the part. His Biblical invocations reached skywards on full power.

Among the small roles, all impeccably cast, a particular standout was Ulrike Helzel, who sang the Page of Herodias with a voice of great size, assurance and promise. Carlos Osuna made a charming Narraboth, Dan Paul Dumitrescu and Il Hong were stalwart and credible as the soldiers who want to do their jobs and not ask questions.

The quarrelsome Jews and Nazarenes, like Siegel’s Herod, played down the malicious and strident sides of their roles (features of these parts in staged performance); rather, they just sang out at us; there was thus less cacophony than in the average Salome. All the insanity seemed to reside in the orchestra, writhing and slithering like a pit full of serpents, erupting like a field of thermal paint pots, tossing all but visible clusters of sound from one group to another. A delirious night at the Wiener Staatsoper.

The stage manager was Max Kurz. I’m not sure if this credit means it is to him or to the notions of the singers that we owe this highly theatrical concert.

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