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Strauss Salome

Salome: Nadja Michael
Herodias: Michaela Schuster
Herod: Thomas Moser
Narraboth: Joseph Kaiser
Jokanaan: Michael Volle

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Conductor: Philippe Jordan
Stage Director: David McVicar

Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden March 2008.

Plus Documentary – ‘David McVicar: A work in process’.

Opus Arte OA0996D [16:9; c. 168 mins]

This is a wholly successful filmed translation onto DVD of David McVicar's notable production which, live at Covent Garden early this year, garnered hundreds of inches of (mainly) fulsome, well-deserved appreciation, gathered by TheOperaCritic - some specific links are provided below for non-members of that indispensible website.

I limit myself here to hailing one of the best of opera DVDs, released very quickly. Importantly, the musical balance is excellent as is the tonal quality, the orchestra taking and holding 'centre stage'; many of us will feel that it is the ground-breaking 1905 orchestral score which finally leaves the most enduring memory, challenging the usual primacy of sight over sound and holding you captive through the repetitive longuers of the essentially simple if shocking tale stretched through most of two hours.

There have been louder, more dominating Salomes, but surely few on film to better Nadja Michael's assumption of the role vocally and physically.* She is one of (not many) opera singers who can hold a close up without the watcher needing to make allowances... Indeed, the excellent camera work, and high definition video, puts the home viewer at a great advantage over audience members in affordable seats at the Royal Opera House. Just one little moment might have been better hidden from view; the killing of Salome by breaking her neck, as demonstrated more convincingly by McVicar in rehearsal...

Judging by some first-night mishaps noted by reviewers, we may be better served by this edited conflation of several March performances, by which time the production would have settled down; a practise familiar in 'live' concert CDs. Purchase is imperative, the more so for the second disc, a privileged, intimate sharing with McVicar and his colleagues the development of his evolving concept and the stages of the making of the production, through the process of planning and rehearsals.

My illustration is of the permanent set, with Herod banqueting above. With David McVicar and designer Es Devlin we followed its design through several preliminary model stages; it remains thus throughout, save for McVicar's treatment of the Dance of the Seven Veils as something of a dream interlude.

The whole thing is a riveting experience, even for those of us not able to enjoy 'true surround sound' at home. The screen surtitles (in optional languages) are helpful and unobtrusive; far better than having to look up above the stage in the opera house.

Strongly recommended, even if you have one of the earlier, more traditional, Salome DVDs.

Peter Grahame Woolf

selected reviews of this Salome at ROH:

but musicalcriticism's Strauss specialist had substantial reservations...

* other Salomes on DVD - Ewing, Stratas and Malfitano http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_ss_d_h_/026-2970768-7090016?url=search-alias%3Ddvd&field-keywords=salome&x=13&y=15

(photos: Clive Barda)

Salome: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 1992

Maria Ewing with
Jokanaan: Michael Devlin
Herod: Kenneth Riegel
Herodias: Gillian Knight
Narraboth: Robin Leggate
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Edward Downes

Stage Director: Peter Hall
TV Director: Derek Bailey

Recorded live 2nd June 1992.

Opus Arte AR3108 D

Also from Covent Garden & Opus Arte, a stunning now-historical release [picture shape 4:3] of a TV transmission at the beginning of the '90s.

Having greatly admired the new version reviewed above, it has been a pleasure to return to this more traditional account, which has Maria Ewing on superb singing and acting form, riveting to watch and amazingly photogenic as she sings (so many prima donnas aren't !) and brilliantly directed by her then husband, Peter Hall.

But what makes this DVD possibly the best of all our experiences of this great early Strauss masterwork is the filming for the small screen, far more involving than I remember the production in the opera house (sacrilegious to admit?).

The camera work is superbly focussed and the close ups with subtitles (not requiring you to split your gaze between stage and high-up surtitles) concentrate attention and clarify passages of the text which can be confusing or get lost in the theatre. Ewing apart, Kenneth Riegel as Herod is especially memorable. It is all in the secure hands of Edward Downes, with excellent sound.

No final preference, but this one is c. half the price of the other and if, in these hard times, you settle for Ewing/Hall rather than Michael/McVicar, you won't have regrets.

Peter Grahame Woolf

P.S. July 14 2009.
Sir Edward Downes' death has been announced today.
Sir Edward, renowned for his work in opera, and his wife Lady Joan Downes,
died together in Switzerland at the assisted suicide clinic

At Royal Opera Covent Garden he had conducted 49 different operas over more than 50 years.
In a statement their children announced that their parents had no religious beliefs and that there will be no funeral.

See also http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk/reviews/cddvd08/VerdiAida1994.html
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Edward Downes achieves a judicious balance between the bombast and refinement of this great score. It is good to see his no-nonsense conducting style and the orchestra is allowed full power and recorded in proper balance with the singers, not always so on DVDs. In my youth (and Edward Downes') few of Verdi's operas were known and rated in UK -
In the 1990s Downes devised a plan to perform all of Verdi’s 28 operas in time for the centenary of the composer’s death in 2001. It was never quite completed. - - "Covent Garden should surely make The Sicilian Vespers, one of the great problematic pieces in the repertoire, a priority. Judging Downes’s current vigour and energy, it would make an entirely worthy 85th birthday celebration." [Guardian 2004]
We have seen and reviewed many Aidas over the years, live and on DVD. Our response to this one is far more positive than to the costlier Pavarotti/Chiara at La Scala. PGW

Image: Associated Press. British conductor Edward Downes and his wife, Joan,
with their baby son, Caractacus, at the Royal Northern Hospital in London in 1967.