In 2014 pianist András Schiff wrote: “What is it with directors? Why is it that most directors find it so hard to fade into the background and stand in the shadow of the work? Where did they acquire this addiction for self-expression, pomposity and disrespect? Why there no modesty? Why this panic fear of boredom?”
I have little doubt that Director Itay Tiran, a leading Israeli actor and theatre director, and conductor Dan Ettinger took serious note of Schiff’s comments. Their production of Salomé could not be more loyal to Strauss’s original intent which was clearly to write an opera where the music and lyrics have equal standing, a work that is not just singers accompanied by an orchestra but a truly integrated masterpiece where all elements of the staging are influenced by the dramatic and musical approach to writing opera of Strauss’s hero Richard Wagner. Salomé is one of the seminal works of the twentieth century and the work where Strauss finally found his true voice as an opera composer. And this excellent production of the work establishes an important milestone in the history of the Israeli Opera House for its ability to create an original production with such world-class quality and creativity and which is so true to every aspect of the text and the music.
In his approach to the drama, Tiran follows the footsteps of Jonathan Miller and Peter Hall, emphasizing and exploring the psychological layers of the plot and especially the complex, distilled development of the character of Salomé herself as she discovers love, eroticism and depravity. Oscar Wilde’s interpretation of a story that combines a terse episode from the New Testament with a symbolist fascination with erotica and death has sparked disputes from the premiere of Salomé back in 1905 to the present day.
Strauss’s music leads Tiran’s interpretation of the plot, while Ettinger, has unequivocally decided to “approach the music through the text”. This is the right place to celebrate the outstanding contribution of the over 90-players in the orchestra, who could hardly fit into the pit, and who worked as a powerful ensemble to fully expose the beauty and intensity of the Strauss’s extraordinary musical approach. The strength of the drama depends partly on the contrast between the tale that is being told and the luscious, almost uplifting music. Salomé’s long aria at the end is consummately beautiful and demanding and leads to a kind of catharsis not only because of its splendour, not only because of its emotional use of leitmotifs from earlier in the score, but also because of the contrast with the fact that she is essentially making love to a severed head. In many moments the sound of the orchestra and its centrality to the drama were so blazingly loud that you could hardly hear the singers, but this exactly how Strauss wished it would sound. Part of the tension in the drama depends on the voices fighting to surmount the sea of sound that the orchestra is creating.
In the singing cast, Elisabet Strid (Salomé) takes most of the burden. She hardly leaves the stage throughout the opera. Even when she is silent she has to react, to indicate what is happening to her internally. Moreover, in the last half hour, she keeps singing as if it were one long aria. She does it in style, fully aware of the approach to the idiom of this opera, a beautiful soprano with not only the vocal abilities required by the role but also top dramatic skills. What a pleasure! Excellent, noteworthy performances are also given by Chris Meritt (Herod) and Daniel Sumegi (Jochanan). Robert McPherson (Narraboth) his powerful tenor is remarkable and perfectly adapted for the Straussian vocal line.
Last but not least in the success of this evening is the fantastic contribution of choreographer Renana Raz and set designer Eran Atzmon. The stage setting is amazing, controlled by the symbolic huge moon created by the brilliant video illusion of Yoav Cohen.
This production of Salomé deserves a special trip to Tel-Aviv if you can make it in the next fortnight.
- By Richard Strauss
- Libretto: German libretto by the composer based on the German translation by Hedwig Lachmann of the French text of the play Salomé by Oscar Wilde
- Sung in German with English and Hebrew subtitles
- Conductor: Dan Ettinger
- Director: Itay Tiran
- Cast includes: Elisabet Strid, Robert McPherson, Daniel Sumegi, Chris Meritt, Edna Prochnik
- The Israeli Opera, Tel-Aviv
- UNTIL 24th January 2019
- Running time: One hour and 50 minutes, no intermission