Once every year Franz Welser-Möst and the mighty Cleveland Orchestra – emphatically his mighty Cleveland Orchestra – pretend they are an opera company. The pretence is invariably welcome, and imposing too.
This season the object of unified attention was Richard Strauss’s tumultuous ode to sensuous necrophilia, Salome. At the Cleveland premiere on May 19, the singers were stationed atop a circular structure, something vaguely resembling a raised cistern, centre stage behind the players. According to reliable reporters, the concert performance served as a glorious showcase for the brave Swedish soprano, Nina Stemme. Generally considered the leading Wagner heroine of our day, she apparently was unfazed even by the most monstrous symphonic competition.
It wasn’t quite like that on Thursday when the project moved to New York. Here the soloists were awkwardly relegated to high platforms at either side of the stage. And for all her authority, expressive acumen and wide-ranging force, Stemme sounded tired. She hit ascending climaxes with effort, and sometimes with less than perfect marksmanship. Even so, she delineated the character poignantly and coloured the text sensitively.
The audience gave her a huge ovation, partly inspired, perhaps, by the oddity that the Met has employed her for only 11 performances since 2000 (first as Wagner’s Senta, then as Strauss’s Ariadne). Robert Lepage’s notorious Ring cycle might not have been quite so dismal had Stemme been cast as Brünnhilde.
On this occasion she was surrounded, and supported, by a genuinely stellar ensemble. Eric Owens boomed nobly as Jochanaan. Rudolf Schasching blustered manfully, also wittily, as Herod. Jane Henschel ranted craftily as Herodias. Garrett Sorenson exuded ardour as Narraboth. Jennifer Johnson Cano luxuriated in the low lines of the Page.
Welser-Möst made the orchestra seethe and churn, roar and grumble, thump and soar, explode and whimper, always with rare intensity and conviction. Ultimately he may have concentrated more on fortissimos than on pianissimos, but he sustained taut passion over the 105-minute obstacle course. Straussian grandeur obviously brings out the best in him.