orchestral passages from a couple of songs on grounds that their style is ‘untenable’ but the oddly interrupting section for strings during Cupid’s ‘’Tis I that have warm’d ye’ is repositioned logically into the song’s prelude.
Two authentic trumpet tunes are omitted but ample compensation comes from the insertion of a suite from Amphitryon (an immediate surprise prior to the usual Overture) and a rondeau from Distress’d Innocency (it shares rhythmical common ground with its preceding lively chorus ‘Come, shepherds, lead up a lively measure’). An aire from Bonduca segues aptly into two Sirens imploring Arthur to ‘come and bathe with us an hour or two’ (the hero has his work cut out to resist the beguiling earnestness of Carolyn Sampson and Anna Dennis), and a zesty rondeau from The Old Bachelor is interpolated before the masque of British prosperity is inaugurated by Roderick Williams’s suave Aeolus (‘Ye blust’ring brethren’).
The band’s use of low pitch (A=392Hz) suits the idiomatic use of high tenors rather than modern countertenors on the alto parts. Playful recorders and chuckling bassoon are made to sound as if onstage in ‘Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying’ (sung by Dennis and Mhairi Lawson with a sly hint of knowing innuendo), while drums and silver trumpets without modern vent holes sound as if behind the scenery in ‘Come if you dare’ (sung gregariously by James Way). The precisely balanced string band (three per part) has bass violins on the lowest part instead of cellos (likewise, there is no anachronistic double bass); the use of unwound all-gut strings set up with equal tension and French-style bow holds are vital elements that enhance delightfully subtle string shading. Theorbos, guitars and harpsichord accompany singers without bowed string bass instruments – an approach that provides a whispered discretion to the trio ‘For folded flocks’ – but seldom play in orchestral pieces; Purcell’s fully textured part-writing works beautifully without plucked continuo in the shaded aire that opens Act 2 and the tenderly phrased solo strings that introduce ‘Fairest isle’ (Sampson’s impeccable declamation of Venus’s blessing of Britain replete with lovely embellishments).
The eight soloists with two additional singers form an excellent chorus that is adept in every context, whether depicting heathen sacrifices, quick-fire calls between competing evil and good spirits in ‘Hither this way’ (Philidel’s tricky solo part made to sound easy by Sampson), soft seductiveness in ‘How blest are shepherds’ (its phrases given plenty of time to breathe by McCreesh) and the gorgeous passacaglia ‘How happy the lover’. A quintet of rougharound-the-edges bystanders is roped in for the refrains in ‘Your hay it is mow’d’, its ringmaster Comus characterised convivially by Williams.
The Frost Scene is given a charming performance by Rowan Pierce’s gleeful Cupid and Ashley Riches’s thawing Cold Genius; the tempo of the chorus of Cold People ‘quiv’ring with cold’ is on the slow side. Throughout the opera McCreesh’s speeds are relaxed rather than driven – no bad thing, to my mind, and it results in Dryden’s wonderful poetry being acted with personable clarity, and the lucidity of musical gestures ensures that affection and intimacy are hallmarks of a performance that conveys a humane smile. David Vickers R Strauss ◊ Y Salome Asmik Grigorian sop �Salome Gábor Bretz bass �Jokanaan John Daszak ten �Herod Anna Maria Chiuri mez �Herodias Julian Prégardien ten �Narraboth Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst Stage director Romeo Castellucci Video director Henning Kasten Unitel/C Major Entertainment F ◊ 801608; F Y 801704 (112’ • NTSC • 16:9 • 1080i • DTS‑HD MA5.1, DTS5.1 & PCM stereo • 0 • s)
Romeo Castellucci’s production of Salome bowled me over at last summer’s Salzburg Festival. I’m pleased to report that it transfers to the small screen with electrifying power, particularly due to Asmik Grigorian’s remarkable debut in the title-role.
The Italian director takes direct inspiration from the city’s Felsenreitschule itself. Hewn into the Mönchsberg rock, the ‘Rock Riding School’ was a cavalry stables before being turned into one of the festival’s theatres. Castellucci camouflages the 96 arcades at the back of the stage, filling the void to create a stony, suffocating atmosphere before a single note of Strauss’s score sounds, cicadas chirruping restlessly in the heat. Across the frontcloth are the words Te saxa loquuntur (‘The stones speak of you’), the inscription above Sigmundstor, the tunnel that slices through the Mönchsberg.
Castellucci’s Salome is riddled with enigmas. At the start, blood is already being wiped from the stage’s golden floor even before a drop has been shed. The moon is eclipsed, blacked out, so that much of the action plays out in shadow. Salome praises Jokanaan’s white skin, yet his voice thunders from a black void, the prophet daubed in tar, feathers and fur before being hosed down by stableboys. The prophet is also represented by a black stallion that careers around the cistern as Salome writhes on her back in a sexual fantasy, having donned a saddle and toyed with riding tackle – another Felsenreitschule reference – when Jokanaan rejects her. Salome does not perform the Dance of the Seven Veils. Instead, she is strapped, half-naked, in the foetal position to Herod’s throne, and a block of stone slowly descends as if to crush her, to petrify her into the rock. And when Salome demands Jokanaan’s head on a silver platter as her reward, she is instead served up his headless body in a pool of milk, plus the head of his black stallion alter ego. Weird? Very much so, and the production’s perversity stopped me from awarding the full five stars … and yet it’s the staging that haunted me most last year. I still don’t pretend to fathom everything Castellucci does, but repeated viewing has made me admire it even more. Annoyingly, not all the production details are captured on this Blu‑ray, the video director missing the slicing of the frontcloth before the music begins – a significant moment – and the finale doesn’t really show the giant black silk balloon that engulfs the stage.
Asmik Grigorian’s erotically charged Salome is outstanding and the main reason you should at least try to see this performance even if the production doesn’t appeal. The Lithuanian soprano sings the role superbly, a lighter soprano than many of the tungsten-plated heavies heard elsewhere, but flecked with steel nonetheless. She has no problem riding the might of the Vienna Philharmonic, and her initial ‘Gib mir den Kopf des Jokanaan!’ is deliciously caressed before being repeated as an intimidating, petulant snarl. She is a terrific actress, too; sulky, steamy and manipulative.
Despite being shrouded in darkness, the Hungarian bass Gábor Bretz makes a vocal impact as Jokanaan, while John Daszak is an intriguing Herod, less neurotic than most, perhaps, though horrified at Salome’s demands. Anna Maria Chiuri is a suitably ghastly Herodias, while Julian Prégardien is a sweet-toned Narraboth, sung with a Lieder singer’s care and attention. Franz Welser-Möst conducts a terrific account of Strauss’s score, the Vienna Philharmonic on scintillating form. Not to be missed. Mark Pullinger gramophone.co.uk
GRAMOPHONE SHORTLIST 2020 37