Thursday, 24 November 2016

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Salome

22 November 2016, Deutsche Oper Berlin

I was left somewhat baffled by Michael Schultz’s new Salome in Dresden last month, which took into a young girl’s nursery for the opening scenes—with Narraboth memorably starting off as an oversized teddy bear—and gave us six burlesque artists choreographed by Koko La Douce rather than seven veils. (My review is forthcoming in Opera.)

Salome at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
Claus Guth’s nearly-new staging at the Deutsche Oper—it opened in January—offers interpretative challenges of a different sort. Again, it seems to be very much taking place in the young princess’s mind, at least before the entrance of her parents and during her final scene. It’s a place filled with suited men, or reanimated mannequins (and a couple of actual child mannequins) and young doubles, the latter coming into play especially in the dance, which turns into a re-enactment of various stages of Salome’s troubled relationship with her step-father.

Although I think it at that stage it might even have been Jochanaan dressed up as Herod: another feature of the production was some confusing cross-dressing—between characters rather than genders. In the first scene we got little help, given the heterogeneous costuming and shady lighting, in telling who was singing when. Guth is such a skilled director that this can only have been a deliberate strategy, a desire to blur lines of identity and reality, to leave us unsettled.

The costuming also played into the main set, revealed as Herod and Herodias made their entrance: a vast tailor’s shop in Guth’s characteristic veneer-clad mid-century style (costumes and sets were by Muriel Gerstner), with suits arrayed by the dozen and ‘Massanfertigungen’ emblazoned across the back wall in stylish font. The revivified shop mannequins become shop assistants. There’s a great deal of the fussing and rushing about that one gets in this sort of place.

Jochanaan’s role in all this is a little unclear. He appears first, thrusting an arm and then a leg out of a pile of clothing, in just his underpants. He is then dressed by the young Salome doubles—presumably projections of her own will. Now, clad in suit, shirt and tie, he is a full member of this strange society. As such he also, of course, begins more and more to resemble Herod.

For his final reappearance he turns up as an actual mannequin, from which Salome herself tears the head. Everything she does to it—nothing remotely erotic, it should be noted—seems then, as if this mannequin is some sort of voodoo doll, to affect Herod (as with much here, it’s difficult to be sure). The final minutes have nothing of gory triumph about them, ending with anti-climactic, disturbing emptiness

Amidst all the dreamlike illusion, all these projections (in the psychological sense), all the deliberate confusion and elision, one is left with a feeling of deep discomfort and uncertainty. There’s no final clarification as there is with Guth’s Frau ohne Schatten, coming to the Staatsoper here in the spring: we are left to draw our own conclusions. Whether or not you think that constitutes a cop-out on the director’s part, will be up to each individual viewer.

This was the 10th appearance of the production and musically things were pretty much as one would expect several months down the line. There were a few rough edges in the orchestral playing, and some slightly boisterous brass, but Jeffrey Tate held it all together skilfully, and paced the evening well. Manuela Uhl’s voice sits high and projects well as Salome, although the slight acidity to the colour is not always welcome. John Lundgren was a stentorian Jochanaan. Burkhard Ulrich and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet were outstanding as the royal couple – he pernickety and fussy, she striking a fine balance between imperious and grotesque.

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