Richard Strauss - Salome

Opéra National de Paris - Bastille - September 26 2003

Conductor: James Conlon. Production: Lev Dodin. Salome: Karita Mattila. Herodes: Chris Merritt. Herodias: Anja Silja. Jochanaan: Falk Struckmann. Narraboth: William Burden.

Lev Dodin has made rather a dubious name for himself in Paris with some "controversial" productions. What, we wondered, might he do with Salome? In the event, not very much. This was a rather dull production with three "ideas:" Jochanaan's cage, a magnificent affair as tall as the Bastille's very high proscenium, slid slowly out of the left-hand wall to let him sing without staying in the wings; the moon, which crossed the sickly yellow sky from right to left, was eclipsed when Salome got her way; and Salome stripped naked (the "veils" were layers of her black and silver skirt) except for a sheer black top.

Otherwise it was a simple set: dark, vaguely art déco façades to left and right, various levels and steps, and at the rear, cypresses against a cloudless sky.

As several critics have mentioned in the press, this was basically a one-woman show. As we already know, Karita Mattila is a convincing singing actress. Her Salome progressed from spoilt teenager, biting her knuckles, to wounded animal in the final scene. The voice was surprisingly powerful (the Bastille is vast) and she sang the role with unusual lyricism. She is, however, stretched to her limits - which is thrilling in itself - and one wonders how long she will be able to sing roles like this (she's said to be preparing Isolde) and keep her voice in shape.

Falk Struckmann has been an excellent Dutchman at the Bastille and made an excellent Jochanaan, though being caged and often offstage gave him no opportunity to build a character. Chris Merritt alternated between shouting and a vast vibrato. Anja Silja, who did sing this Friday evening, had her usual magnetic stage presence, but - with all due respect, and I have great respect for her indeed - it's probably time she rested on her laurels. William Burden (Narraboth), my neighbour thought, had "a lovely voice and lovely legs."

The Paris opera orchestra, a frequently surly bunch who usually disappear from the pit immediately at the end, not only stayed but applauded Conlon and the cast. The reception from the Paris audience, meanwhile, was about as rapturous as they come.

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