Nelsons, BSO and Barkmin strike sparks in vivid “Salome”

March 7, 2014 at 5:20 pm

By David Wright

Gun-Brit Barkmin sang the title role in Strauss’s “Salome” Thursday night with conductor Andris Nelson’s and the Boston Symphony Orchestra

It was mildly disappointing to look in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s admirable performance-history notes on Thursday night and find no indication that Richard Strauss’s Salome had ever been banned in Boston.

Surely the night’s concert performance under music director-designate Andris Nelsons, featuring the BSO debut of soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin in the title role, was lurid and lusty enough to bring out the vice squad, even without the actual striptease and severed-head smooching of staged versions.

But in an age when the erotic and violent fantasies of teenagers are standard pop-culture fare, listeners tend to be not so much appalled at the blasphemy and necrophilia of Strauss’s young heroine as stunned by the power of the composer’s musical imagination.

The latter was fully on display Thursday, as Nelsons and his players wrung every drop of musical metaphor and expression from Strauss’s extravagant score, from Herod’s hallucination of a giant bird with beating wings to the long orchestral interlude that, without any singing at all, portrays Salome’s psychic turn from infatuation to murderous rage.

In fact, few operas lend themselves as well to performances by an orchestra onstage as Salome, which Strauss pointedly called not an opera but a “music drama,” and the composer Fauré called “a symphonic poem with voices added.”

Those voices, in the main, held their own quite well Thursday night. With an astute Nelsons giving them as much orchestra as they could stand, the singers rose above it all, most spectacularly Barkmin as Salome.

In the early going, as Salome charmed the captain Narraboth into disobeying orders and bringing out the imprisoned prophet Jochanaan, Barkmin was able to make her little insinuations and flirtations register all the way to the back row—and in long, narrow Symphony Hall, that’s saying something.

Flirtations, however, are not what this role is known for. As the character abandoned herself more and more to erotic and murderous impulses, her part became more impassioned, agitated, even overwrought—in today’s usage, “extreme” singing. On Thursday, Barkmin sent those taxing high notes ringing through the hall one after another after another, without fail.

But not without effort. Hers was not a lush, opulent voice one could relax into, but a slender tone to match her slender physique. (Dressed in a sort of black caftan with droopy sleeves, she often flung her arms wide, evoking, intentionally or not, a draped cross.) It added a subtext of frailty to the immense vocal power she wielded in the role.

As for acting her role, Barkmin was usually content to appear sulky and mysterious, like the girl in the Aubrey Beardsley illustrations for the Oscar Wilde play on which this work is based, and let the orchestra relate her interior monologue.

By contrast, tenor Gerhard Siegel actively projected his role as the imperious, hot-tempered King Herod, his full-bodied yet focused tenor every bit up to the part (and to a very large BSO playing forte).

Pure rectitude is not an easy quality to project, nor very dynamic in a dramatic sense, but baritone Evgeny Nikitin managed it as the prophet Jochanaan, with the courage to sing in an off-putting, hard tone that emphasized the sheer looniness of Salome’s falling for the guy.

As Queen Herodias, Jane Henschel brought a rich mezzo-soprano tone to a role of one-liners where it had little chance to bloom, but she struck some fine, angry sparks off Siegel’s Herod as the action neared its tragic climax.

Tenor Carlos Osuna as the doomed captain Narraboth did not make himself heard as well as the others over Strauss’s heavy scoring, but the conflict between lust and duty came through clearly in his performance.

In smaller roles, bass-baritones Keith Miller and Ryan Speedo Green as two soldiers made the most of their mainly expository dialogue at the beginning of the show, and tenor Jason Ferrante was a humorous standout as Jew No. 4 in an otherwise squirm-inducing bit of comic relief satirizing Jewish theological disputations.

Conductor Nelsons paced the music effectively, and the performance’s nearly two hours without intermission seemed to fly by. The Dance of the Seven Veils, composed last and standing somewhat apart in style from the rest of the opera, is nevertheless significant in Salome’s psychic transformation, but on Thursday it came off as a set piece, a bit too lingered over, and the drama lost momentum at that point. But the orchestra played it superbly, reaching deep in its box of exotic colors.

Quibbles aside, an audience eager for signs of a brighter future for the long-leaderless BSO appeared thrilled to hear such vital and finished music-making under Nelson’s baton, and they rewarded the performance with a prolonged, enthusiastic ovation.

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