By Peter Franken
Romeo Castelluci’s production of Salome was a remarkable success at the Salzburg Festival in 2018. Not least because of the phenomenal interpretation of the title role by Asmik Grigorian. The premiere was broadcast live on TV and, supplemented with material recorded during two subsequent performances, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray. Last summer, the production was repeated three times, again with great success, after which the visitors could have their previously purchased copies signed by Frau Grigorian.
A production by Romeo Castelluci is in fact a Gesamtkunstwerk. He directs and designs the costumes and the scenery. Only for the choreography does he allow someone else into his world. Castellucci is said to be not so much a director of persons as one who stages the entire space. His Salome therefore does not lend itself very well to wide-ranging interpretations, but can best be experienced as it is.
The broad, shallow stage of the Felsenreitschule is used in its entirety. The arches in the back wall have been closed, so that the audience is looking at a closed, greyish back wall, which contributes to the oppressive atmosphere. The stage is empty, with the exception of a number of gold-coloured objects, which sometimes play a role in the action, sometimes not.
The floor is shiny gold, making the light reflect in such a way that the players seem to be standing behind a transparent curtain. This is a small disadvantage of a recording in HD, the public in the auditorium did not notice it, as I know from my own experience. A large opening in the floor gives access to the cistern where Jochanaan is kept prisoner.
The costumes are fairly uniform: men in dark suits with faces partially painted in red. It is difficult to distinguish between the different characters; all of them are merely secondary figures in the drama that takes place between the three protagonists. Herodias, with green makeup, is also emphatically kept in the background.
Salome appears in a white dress holding a royal white cloak with a crown in her hand. A red spot suggests that she is menstruating, emphasizing that although she is unmarried, she has more than reached the age of marriage. Moreover, this makes her extra untouchable for the prophet; she is in all respects an impure woman. When Narroboth gives in and has the Prophet brought up, he remains largely shrouded in darkness. We only see a black shadow. Salome speaks to him, he answers and curses her.
So far, the libretto is followed fairly closely. But after Jochanaan has retreated to his dungeon, the action takes a remarkable turn. During the overwhelming musical interlude, Salome lies on her back and performs a complex, erotically tinted ballet with her legs. Cindy van Acker’s choreography is sublime and the mastery with which Grigorian performs this ballet is phenomenal. The eroticism of course relates to the excitement generated by the encounter with the prophet. He grossly rejected her and even cursed her, an entirely new experience for this luxurious creature. At the same time, a horse wanders around the cistern, a reference to the fascination of young girls with large animals. A bit of a cliché, but very effective.
On the front curtain the text “Te Saxo Loquuator” was written, meaning “what the stones may say to you”. Castellucci uses this reference to the supposed strenghth and power of stones to give a different meaning to Salome’s dance. At the beginning she is hidden from view by a group of extras and suddenly appears lying almost naked in a fetal position on a golden block, on which SAXO is written in large letters.
During the musical intermezzo, a large block slowly descends from above and threatens to crush her. Instead, however, Salome is enveloped by the descending block, hidden from view. She has turned to stone, a gem, but still. The enormity of what she intends to do has made her an undead in advance.
Dramaturge Piesandra di Matteo gives the following explanation: „In ihrer Eigenschaft als Objekt verweigert sich die Figur“, so erlischt der Trieb, wodurch sich neues Potenzial erschließt.“ Be that as it may, the above mentioned ‘ballet’ clearly ends with the suggestion of an orgasm, so ‘Trieb’ will play less of a role by now. There is no longer any question of revenge sex with the head, it is now about the revenge of ‘a woman scorned’.
While Herod wringing his hands tries to get Salome to change her mind, she bathes in a large puddle of milk. He gives in, but instead of Jochanaan’s head Salome does not unexpectedly first receive a horse’s head and only later the body of the dead prophet. Salome’s final monologue is directed at Jochanaan’s torso. She also briefly puts the horse’s head on it. Finally she goes down into a second cistern and we only see her head when Herod gives the order to kill her.
Salome really is an orgy of sound and visuals, an overwhelming theatre play. And it only really comes into its own when there is a Salome on stage who is in charge of everything and everyone, including the huge orchestra, no matter how loud they play. This makes Asmik Grigorian the ideal Salome. She has a large voice, with which she is able to cut through the orchestra at any moment, without forcing it for a single moment. A Salome should have everything: an Isolde, but also a Chrysothemis and a Zdenka. With her clear, agile voice, Grigorian can convincingly perform these different types. What makes her a unique interpreter of the famous title character, however, is her ability to make singing and acting an organic whole.
John Daszak is vocally a strong Herod, but cannot make much of an impression: it’s all about Salome here. Even Jochanaan remains, literally, in her shadow. Bass-baritone Gabor Bretz is above all a strongly singing shadow. The only time he appears is when he is sprayed clean with a garden hose by a couple of helpers.
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the house orchestra of the Salzburger Festspiele, under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst, provides a hugely successful musical support, claiming the leading role here and there during the interludes.
This recording by (C-major 801704) is an absolute must for lovers of this masterpiece by Richard Strauss.
Trailer of the production:
Asmik Grigorian, John Daszak, Anna Maria Chiuri, Gábor Bretz, Julian Prégardien
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst
Directed by: Romeo Castelluci
Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator