Monday, March 10, 2014


Salome - Vienna Philharmonic, 3/1/2014
Barkmin, Konieczny, Henschel, Osuna, Siegel / Nelsons

The Richard Strauss revivals leading up to his 150th birthday this June have brought real success at the Met, which perhaps will continue through Arabella in the spring. But if no other tribute had been offered, this Carnegie Hall concert of Salome would have more than sufficed.

It was, as much as anything, a demonstration of the art of conducting Strauss. Andris Nelsons has done some good at the Met -- most recently a the pit portion of a magnificent Queen of Spades -- but in neither that nor the Turandot machinery he guided beforehand did he manage to show the mastery of color and mood he demonstrated in the first five minutes of this Salome. The previous night's Wozzeck (set to be conducted by Daniele Gatti before shoulder injury forced his cancellation) had an excellent cast undermined by the oddly relaxed quality Welser-Möst brought to even Berg's most harrowing turns, but Nelsons' work was notable for its breadth of expression. Nelsons immediately conjured from the Vienna players the prodigious Strauss soundscape -- with so many of the moods, turns, and juxtapositions famous (in different combination) in his later output already present -- and led them through phases of tension and relaxation -- keeping a grip on the mood when he relaxed on the playing -- that built to a tremendous and frenzied Dance (with rather amazing "Schwung") and final scene. Neither of the two Met runs of the last decade -- as great and as landmark as they were -- offered the like, with Gergiev (2004) ever a bit nervous and Patrick Summers (2008) edging, outside of the grand moments, to the clinical.

But the night was also the revelatory introduction of soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin to New York. This is the German's first year singing on the world's great stages, but -- if this calling-card role is any indication -- far from her last. Barkmin's voice isn't obviously forceful, but it has an edge that carries at least its higher part over the orchestra. The rest was near-ideal: unfussily lyric timbre (still with the lightness of youth), suitable looks (particularly in her turn-of-the-century outfit), and an uncanny impersonation of a teen absolutely corrupted by absolute spoiling (even within the limited stage aspect of a concert performance) all combined for an extraordinarily classical Salome, one seemingly performed -- even without the Dance -- just as Strauss had imagined her. (Yes, for those who have seen Karita Mattila inimitably render the final scene as the simultaneous expression and meltdown of all human want and satisfaction... Barkmin didn't deliver that. But she was nevertheless a wonder.) I've no idea what she might sound like in more "regular" roles, but when Barkmin already sings Ariadne and the Janacek rep, who really cares? Let's hope this accelerates her Met debut.

Also impressive was emergency debutant Tomasz Konieczny, who replaced the ill Falk Struckmann as John the Baptist. Konieczny, already a Vienna State Opera regular, has a nice focus and ring to his bass-baritone sound, and a youthful appearance that gave his exchanges with Salome a novel cast. In fact the only weak point in this imported-from-Vienna ensemble was the First Nazarene, where young Adam Plachetka can't yet summon the force and authority of Morris Robinson (who nearly stole the two Met runs).

A resounding triumph for players, singers, and conductor. If only concert performances offered proper solo curtain calls at the end...

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.