Cher Public

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.

  • Buster

    Thanks for both reports, sir. Gorgeous photo of Miss Barkmin. Lulu next?

  • Krunoslav

    Wow, I heard her in COC’s Zemlinsky/Puccini double bill,and “very beautiful” would have been the last phrase i applied to her instrument-- maybe something more like “late career Malfitano/utilité”.

    Anyone else heard her live, as Salome or at all?

  • balconydenizen

    Thanks for the report. Nelsons is leading the BSO on Thursday with mostly the same leading cast (Evgeny Nikitin as Jochannan). I was curious about Barkmin. Glad to read that she did a fine job. The Denizen will be in the balcony.

  • papopera

    The twining(double reed)woodwinds is the result of Strauss scoring for the new heckelphone that gives such a new low voice to the texture.

  • Froshlover

    I had a slightly different take on the wonderful performance. From my seat (middle of Row H of the orchestra) the most impressive singing of the unusually strong cast was Tomasz Konieczny’s Jochanaan. Listening to him I thought, “THIS is what it must have been like to hear George London, or Hans Hotter in their prime in the theater.”

    Absolutely rock-solid bass baritone, perfectly even throughout the scale, as commanding and rich at the top as the bottom. Effortless, authoritative singing that was as musical in molding lyric phrases as in thundering curses. If he sings Wotan this superbly he’s the Wotan of our time.

    Loved the fact Gun-Brit Barkmin looked like her costume and makeup had been done by Aubrey Beardsley but she sounded over-parted from my seat. She reminded me of Mattila in the role—a pleasant voice taking on more than it could do naturally, so she was pushing, pushing, pushing and, ultimately, had to jettison everything else (color, nuance, etc.) just to stay afloat. Which she did. But ultimately I lost interest in Salome herself and just focused on what Andris Nelsons and the Vienna Phil were doing….which was fascinating. Brilliant work from both conductor and orchestra. Just thrilling to experience it live.

    When Konieczny walked off stage after his final shattering “Du bist verflucht” I was reminded that at Kirsten Flagstad’s Met debut, when Sieglinde made her exit in the middle of act 3 of WALKURE, according to contemporary accounts the audience gave her an ovation, right there in the middle of the act. I’m sorry we didn’t do the same for Konieczny last night. He certainly deserved it.

    • jd

      Tomasz Konieczny was indeed superb last night. I was in the front row of the balcony and my ears perked up at his wonderful sound. I had not heard of him before, but apparently he is a regular at the Vienna State Opera, singing Wotan and Alberich as well as Jochanaan, Amfortas and Kurwenal. My favorite Mime Gerhard Siegel as Herod paired well with Jane Henschel as Herodias. Gun-Brit Barkmin seemed to have sufficient color and tone from my balcony seat. Loved the orchestra as did the CH audience. The ovations went on and on!!

    • Cuban_Stallion


  • mifune

    Thanks for this pair of reviews — I went both nights, and I think both reviews were spot on. I really enjoyed the Salome, especially Konieczny and Nelsons+VPO. After the tedious Wozzeck, I was sort of dreading the second night, having seen the memorable Salome at Carnegie Hall just two years ago with the Cleveland Orchestra, Welser-Möst, Nina Stemme and Eric Owens.

  • JackJack

    I was there and thought Gun-Brit Barkmin a disappointment. She was highly committed, but sounded over-parted and frequently off pitch. The orchestra sounded glorious.

  • DeepSouthSenior

    I hate to admit it, but Hildegard Behrens as Marie in Wozzeck has spoiled me as regards anyone else in the role. (Ditto Behrens as Elektra, available on MET Opera on Demand.) I’m thinking of the Wozzeck video with Abbado and Vienna State Opera. Raw, gut-wrenching, elemental, bleak without a second of relief. To me at least, performances like this sweep aside all criticisms of voice production, uniformity of sound, register breaks, harsh top notes, etc.

    I think of Behrens as the Helen Mirren of opera -- Totally fearless, ever willing to cast aside glamor and look as “natural” or rough or harrowed as the role demands. And all the more beautiful for such exposure,

  • almavivante

    From row F in the Balcony, I also thought Barkmin’s voice perhaps a half-size too small for the role, but… Allein, was tut’s? Her performance won’t dethrone Lyuba or Birgit, but the orchestra was absolutely unbelievable. I don’t think I will ever hear Salome conducted better. (The last time I heard Salome at Carnegie, Levine conducted so blastingly loud, he drowned out Caballe!)

  • Liz.S

    Please dismiss what I say, if you don’t like it -- everybody has his/her own taste. For me Wozzeck the previous day was much more satisfying musically. I totally appreciated Nelsons’ interpretations, but it was sort of like a energetic young genius’ Salome. Volume-wise, everything was a notch higher, e.g. piano was mezzo piano, u.s.w. I’m not saying anything is wrong with it, but it was kinda funny to see Wph playing like an American big band ;-P I can see why the audience in NYC went wild.

    Including Barkmin with her Beardsley costume and blood red nails, I also can see why some people rave about this perf -- it was very theatrical. I thought she did her best with what she’s got, but for me she often times sounded very unpleasant esp. towards the end, when I was expecting a sublime intoxicating beauty. Her occasional theatrical artificial tone was not my cuppa, as well. Yes, Siegel was wonderful, Konieczny was a surprise (looking forward to the next occasion,) but my dear aunteee Jane was a bit less impressive than when she sang the same role @ CH a couple of years ago. Over all, I preferred previous outing by Stimme, Cleveland Orchestra, et. al.

  • Liz.S

    Almost forgot, there will be a radio broadcast of Nelsons & BSO’s Salome with the same cast (well, almost, Jochanaan=Nikitin this time) this Sat 8PM --
    I’m sure it will be on demand also