A gigantic moon, symbol of obsession, gazes out at the audience of this year’s Salzburg Easter Festival. Literally. Some way into the action, a series of eyes open and blink back at us from between lunar craters. As we watch, we are seen.
Stefan Herheim, great white hope of Continental opera direction since his intricate Bayreuth Parsifal three years ago, has turned Richard Strauss’s Salome into a cerebral reflection on mutual perception. The Salzburg audience failed to see his point, and roundly booed the Norwegian director on opening night. Even Simon Rattle, arguably the reason many of them were there, was booed.
But how much of Herheim’s productions are Herheim’s handiwork? Heike Scheele’s vast and beautiful set dominates the stage and dictates much of the action. A huge brass telescope acts as symbol, catwalk, gangplank and cannon, cupped in a scoop of curved walls that frames projections (fettFilm) of the moon, the stars and – for the Dance of the Seven Veils – six sequinned Salomes. And Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach’s dramaturgy determines Herheim’s heavy-handed concept, in which all the men are Herodes and all the women are shades of Salome, apart from a line-up of supernumeraries dressed as Hitler, Mussolini, Caesar, Napoleon and Co., who are later dispatched by Salome’s spangled doubles.
For the rest of it, Herheim’s protagonists spend uncomfortably long stretches of time standing around looking helpless. It is not that Herheim is low on skill. When he wants to, he can magic people on and off like a true wizard. But most of the time he seems not to have bothered. His singers are left alone to sing. And that proves problematic.
With Emily Magee in the title role, Rattle has assembled a cast high on refinement but low on brute force. In the Grosses Festspielhaus, even with the pit lowered more than usual, the Berlin Philharmonic consistently overwhelms the singers.
Are the instruments too loud, or are the singers too soft? The orchestra, lush and burnished, is both the centrepiece of this festival and the high point of this Salome. Rattle takes his time with the score, drawing out a wealth of detail over a broad dynamic range. It is beautiful, but not balanced. A different cast might have tipped the scales more equally. As it is, Magee never has a chance, all her subtleties lost beneath a flood of orchestral sound. Stig Andersen sounds bland as Herodes, Hanna Schwarz makes a mild Herodias, Iain Paterson’s Jochanaan is unspectacular. For all the splendour, the piece never gains the dangerous edge it needs.
It is a frighteningly huge effort for just two performances. Perhaps the production will fare better when it arrives in Madrid, part of a new co-production agreement that will ensure a longer shelf-life for Salzburg’s Easter premieres. But that is not until 2014.